Blockchain Ethical Design Framework

Report by Cara LaPointe and Lara Fishbane: “There are dramatic predictions about the potential of blockchain to “revolutionize” everything from worldwide financial markets and the distribution of humanitarian assistance to the very way that we outright recognize human identity for billions of people around the globe. Some dismiss these claims as excessive technology hype by citing flaws in the technology or robustness of incumbent solutions and infrastructure.

The reality will likely fall somewhere between these two extremes across multiple sectors. Where initial applications of blockchain were focused on the financial industry, current applications have rapidly expanded to address a wide array of sectors with major implications for social impact.

This paper aims to demonstrate the capacity of blockchain to create scalable social impact and to identify the elements that need to be addressed to mitigate challenges in its application. We are at a moment when technology is enabling society to experiment with new solutions and business models. Ubiquity and global reach, increased capabilities, and affordability have made technology a critical tool for solving problems, making this an exciting time to think about achieving greater social impact. We can address issues for underserved or marginalized people in ways that were previously unimaginable.

Blockchain is a technology that holds real promise for dealing with key inefficiencies and transforming operations in the social sector and for improving lives. Because of its immutability and decentralization, blockchain has the potential to create transparency, provide distributed verification, and build trust across multiple systems. For instance, blockchain applications could provide the means for establishing identities for individuals without identification papers, improving access to finance and banking services for underserved populations, and distributing aid to refugees in a more transparent and efficient manner. Similarly, national and subnational governments are putting land registry information onto blockchains to create greater transparency and avoid corruption and manipulation by third parties.

From increasing access to capital, to tracking health and education data across multiple generations, to improving voter records and voting systems, blockchain has countless potential applications for social impact. As developers take on building these types of solutions, the social effects of blockchain can be powerful and lasting. With the potential for such a powerful impact, the design, application, and approach to the development and implementation of blockchain technologies have long-term implications for society and individuals.

This paper outlines why intentionality of design, which is important with any technology, is particularly crucial with blockchain, and offers a framework to guide policymakers and social impact organizations. As social media, cryptocurrencies, and algorithms have shown, technology is not neutral. Values are embedded in the code. How the problem is defined and by whom, who is building the solution, how it gets programmed and implemented, who has access, and what rules are created have consequences, in intentional and unintentional ways. In the applications and implementation of blockchain, it is critical to understand that seemingly innocuous design choices have resounding ethical implications on people’s lives.

This white paper addresses why intentionality of design matters, identifies the key questions that should be asked, and provides a framework to approach use of blockchain, especially as it relates to social impact. It examines the key attributes of blockchain, its broad applicability as well as its particular potential for social impact, and the challenges in fully realizing that potential. Social impact organizations and policymakers have an obligation to understand the ethical approaches used in designing blockchain technology, especially how they affect marginalized and vulnerable populations….(More)”