W3C Workshop – Blockchains and the Web – June 29-30, 2016
Author: Angela Walch (Assistant Professor, St. Mary’s University School of Law)
I came to blockchain technologies via Bitcoin, which drew my attention given my interest in theories of money – what it is, how it works, who it comes from. I began researching Bitcoin in 2013, and am most intrigued by its governance. I see governance as the primary issue that will affect the success of both public and private blockchains.
My article, The Bitcoin Blockchain as Financial Market Infrastructure: A Consideration of Operational Risk, was published in late 2015 in the NYU Journal of Legislation & Public Policy. It is available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2579482. The article looks at the suitability of the Bitcoin blockchain to serve as the backbone of our financial infrastructures, given the operational risks that stem from its status as decentralized, open-source software. I have presented my research on blockchain technologies at Harvard Law School and with the Modern Money Network at Columbia Law School, among others, and moderated a panel on “Engaging with International Regulators” at Consensus 2016 earlier this month. I have a chapter (Public Blockchains and Operational Risk) forthcoming in the Handbook of Digital Banking and Internet Finance (eds. David Lee and Robert Deng) to be published by Elsevier, and have several other blockchain-related works in progress.
I also did IT contracts as an in-house lawyer for Sainsbury’s (the UK supermarket chain) before becoming a law professor – this shaped my understanding of how lawyers and technologists communicate, and the challenges involved in coming to a common understanding regarding technology and representing that understanding in human language.
I am interested in leading a discussion on the diversity of viewpoints that are needed to make sense of and develop blockchain technologies, and how to bring these viewpoints into the discussion.
Just like other foundational communications technologies (writing, double-entry book-keeping, money), blockchain technology is inherently interdisciplinary. Thus, decisions about it, from standards decisions to regulatory decisions, should include experts from all relevant fields. There are almost no purely technical decisions – injected firmly into the conversation about blockchain technology should be the understanding that every “technical” decision is inherently a policy choice, and that voices from a variety of disciplines, with expertise in policy and history of policy and trials and errors that humans have gleaned over our experience together, can only strengthen the discussion, and enhance the potential benefits society can reap from the technology. Bringing other disciplines in early in the process will help.
While this is a new technology, the tasks/practices to which it is being applied are not new. Payments, property records, insurance records, contracts – all of these have been around for a very long time. And many lessons have been learned along the way – many of the features of the practices have been chosen for important policy reasons . One of the most basic of these is that humans are imperfect, and that systems have to accommodate the human capacity (and propensity) for mistakes. The blockchain discussion should be tempered by the principle that not every policy choice of the past was made because of a lack of technology. To be sure, some were. But, certainly not all. And involving and listening to experts from other fields can make the development of the technology more robust, efficient, effective, and hopefully reduce negative policy outcomes.
Communication and translation here between and across fields will be key. Just as communication barriers between parties of different expertises can cause problems (think of the difficulties of getting a good specification for any coding or building or other project), so they can here (ironic, of course, with a communication technology).
My position is that humility is important here. Humility, and a recognition that messing with fundamental systems and practices in our society is exciting, but also carries a heavy responsibility. When messing with medicine, property records, finance, you are dealing with the lives and resources of individuals, and if you seek to build systems dealing with these issues for many individuals, you affect each of them within that system. And the system should be effective, robust, and harm as few people as possible. Thus, including a diversity of expertises and perspectives is crucial in building the best systems.