26/02/2018 13:59 GMT | Updated 26/02/2018 13:59 GMT

For Everyone, Forever: Electronic Ethics In A Blockchain World

Do we have the right to be forgotten?


It is perhaps surprising that such a new and innovative technology as Blockchain can make you ask many old and difficult questions. It is now beyond doubt that the potential for Blockchain is enormous, but one thing is still fiercely contested: is it ethical?

The power of Blockchain lies in its distributed nature. Shared across hundreds of thousands of systems, this digital ledger has no central repository. It exists everywhere and nowhere, which is why it is a problem for our more traditional institutions.

We are used to power being centralised. Central banks set our monetary policy, central government sets our tax rates. In the world of Blockchain, information is no longer monopolised by its traditional arbiters. The record is available for anyone and everyone - there are no gate keepers.

This equality of access can be a powerful tool for democracy. Other digital services, due to their centralised nature, can be easily targeted by hackers and censored by repressive governments. In 2016 Turkey offered a dramatic case in point, when President Erdoğan blocked Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Whatsapp - their digital tools confiscated by the state, regime opponents and most of the Turkish media were effectively gagged.

However, due to its almost ethereal nature, Blockchain can’t be hijacked or suppressed. Its repository of data exists in so many places simultaneously that it can survive any number of individual attacks on its integrity; it is the many-headed Hydra. The more evangelical of Blockchain’s champions claim that autocratic regimes will tremble in the face of this mighty tool of public record.

Of course, an ethicist would tell us that any vessel for great good can inevitably also be a vessel for great harm. Blockchain’s resistance to outside interference also means that its content can’t be policed via traditional means. We have all seen articles written in great panic about black markets for drugs and weapons, which Blockchain can make impervious to law enforcement agents. Just this week, Jaun Zarate, the architect of economic sanctions against the ‘Axis of Evil’ under President George W. Bush, warned that Blockchain transactions could be used by rogue states to circumvent conventional embargoes against trade and currency exchange.

The robustness of the Blockchain platform also raises another ethical dilemma: do we have the right to be forgotten? Blockchain information runs consecutively, from one block to the next, chronologically hashed together. Once a piece of data has been added it can never be removed, as alterations will not tally with other versions of the chain and so be refused.

This poses some tough questions. What if a person wants to disappear from the virtual world, or have their data expunged? Blockchain is the proverbial tablet of stone – once written it can never be unwritten. For this reason we must be very cautious in deciding which avenues of data recording we want to explore.

Is it ethical for information on a child to be stored in Blockchain for perpetuity, before they possessed the requisite understanding to make that decision for themselves? The same can be said of criminal convictions. Many countries allow criminal records to expire, but there would be no such respite on Blockchain. The record would endure infinitely.

Under the auspices of the UK Government many digital companies are required to consider requests by individuals to have unsavoury data de-linked from search results. With search engines like Google this is known as the ‘Right to be Forgotten’. It is unclear how any legislation like this could be applied to Blockchain, as retrospective revisions are impossible in its architecture.

But while the ethical challenges related to Blockchain are real and they are concerning, we must also keep them in context.

No technological advancement is nefarious in and of itself; it is as good or bad as the intentions of its user. Blockchain is essentially a mirror on society and so reflects the positive and negative aspects of our modern lives and our wish to record information.

The potential for good is considerable and tangible. De Beers now use Blockchain to catalogue and certify diamonds in its efforts to combat the trade in conflict diamonds. Whereas traditional documentation can be forged to conceal the bloody past of a stone, the Blockchain’s integrity cannot be compromised, thereby foiling illicit trade.

Others suggest we could even be voting via Blockchain one day: these digital ballots can’t be forged, lost or destroyed and could help fight political corruption. Estonia has already issued its citizens with digital identifiers, which they use to take part in elections electronically. Would you vote with a keystroke?

The ethics of Blockchain will continue to evolve, just like the technology. Ultimately, it’s up to society to seize this opportunity for a genuinely transparent and democratic digital platform.