Blockchains, personal data and the challenge of governance

Theo Bass at NESTA: “…There are a number of dominant internet platforms (Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) that hoard, analyse and sell information about their users in the name of a more personalised and efficient service. This has become a problem.

People feel they are losing control over how their data is used and reused on the web. 500 million adblocker downloads is a symptom of a market which isn’t working well for people. As Irene Ng mentions in a recent guest blog on the Nesta website, the secondary data market is thriving (online advertising is a major player), as companies benefit from the opacity and lack of transparency about where profit is made from personal data.

It’s said that blockchain’s key characteristics could provide a foundational protocol for a fairer digital identity system on the web. Beyond its application as digital currency, blockchain could provide a new set of technical standards for transparency, openness, and user consent, on top of which a whole new generation of services might be built.

While the aim is ambitious, a handful of projects are rising to the challenge.

Blockstack is creating a global system of digital IDs, which are written into the bitcoin blockchain. Nobody can touch them other than the owner of that ID. Blockstack are building a new generation of applications on top of this infrastructure which promises to provide “a new decentralized internet where users own their data and apps run locally”.

Sovrin attempts to provide users with “self-sovereign identity”. The argument is that “centralized” systems for storing personal data make it a “treasure chest for attackers”. Sovrin argues that users should more easily be able to have “ownership” over their data, and the exchange of data should be made possible through a decentralised, tamper-proof ledger of transactions between users.

Our own DECODE project is piloting a set of collaboratively owned, local sharing economy platforms in Barcelona and Amsterdam. The blockchain aims to provide a public record of entitlements over where people’s data is stored, who can access it and for what purpose (with some additional help from new techniques in zero-knowledge cryptography to preserve people’s privacy).

There’s no doubt this is an exciting field of innovation. But the debate is characterised by a lot of hype. The following sections therefore discuss some of the challenges thrown up when we start thinking about implementations beyond bitcoin.

Blockchains and the challenge of governance

As mentioned above, bitcoin is a “bearer asset”. This is a necessary feature of decentralisation — all users maintain sole ownership over the digital money they hold on the network. If users get hacked (digital wallets sometimes do), or if a password gets lost, the money is irretrievable.

While the example of losing a password might seem trivial, it highlights some difficult questions for proponents of blockchain’s wider uses. What happens if there’s a dispute over an online transaction, but no intermediary to settle it? What happens if a someone’s digital assets or their digital identity is breached and sensitive data falls into the wrong hands? It might be necessary to assign responsibility to a governing actor to help resolve the issue, but of course this would require the introduction of a trusted middleman.

Bitcoin doesn’t try to answer these questions; its anonymous creators deliberately tried to avoid implementing a clear model of governance over the network, probably because they knew that bitcoin would be used by people as a method for subverting the law. Bitcoin still sees a lot of use in gray economies, including for the sale of drugs and gambling.

But if blockchains are set to enter the mainstream, providing for businesses, governments and nonprofits, then they won’t be able to function irrespective of the law. They will need to find use-cases that can operate alongside legal frameworks and jurisdictional boundaries. They will need to demonstrate regulatory compliance, create systems of rules and provide accountability when things go awry. This cannot just be solved through increasingly sophisticated coding.

All of this raises a potential paradox recently elaborated in a post by Vili Lehdonvirta of the Oxford Internet Institute: is it possible to successfully govern blockchains without undermining their entire purpose?….

If blockchain advocates only work towards purely technical solutions and ignore real-world challenges of trying to implement decentralisation, then we’ll only ever see flawed implementations of the technology. This is already happening in the form of centrally administered, proprietary or ‘half-baked’ blockchains, which don’t offer much more value than traditional databases….(More)”.