March 8, 2018 | By Cara LaPointe
Blockchain technology can create scalable social impact and has the ability to change people’s lives. Emerging applications are demonstrating blockchain’s social value – from smart contracts that hold both parties to their agreements to transparent land registries to digital identities for refugees. The social effects of blockchain can be powerful and lasting. Hence, making intentional, ethical decisions in its design and implementation is critical to ensure the technology’s potential for transformative change.
Blockchain is a digital distributed ledger technology that has the potential to provide secure and immutable records of distributed and sequenced information or transactions. Blockchain does not require a central trust authority to verify information or authenticate transactions; rather, the rules are pre-written into code defining how actors can behave in the system. It is this unique combination of attributes – transparency, trust, and immutability of transactions – that makes blockchain technology appealing. Depending how it is designed, blockchain can also produce a wide range of actual consequences for people. The technology’s flexibility and extensibility, along with its immutability, transparency, and rules-based trust, demands a thoughtful, shared approach to its design and use.
The Beeck Center for Social Innovation + Impact at Georgetown University, as a learning partner with The Rockefeller Foundation, has developed the forthcoming Blockchain Ethical Design Framework as a tool for practitioners to drive ethical intentionality into the design of blockchain technology for social impact. We are interested in blockchains because, as a technology in its formative stage, it offers an opportunity to rethink how society can best leverage data and technology for social impact.
Ethical Design and Implementation
There are important, ethical considerations of blockchain’s design for human lives, especially for vulnerable and marginalized populations. Intentionality of design is critical, both as solutions are scaled and standards are established. Technology is never neutral; it affects people in both helpful and harmful ways. Values are always embedded in the technology, even when not overtly recognizable.
This is especially true of blockchain. For example, a digital identity system can provide an immutable and secure identity that is uniquely linked to a person’s biometrics, such as their fingerprints and iris scans, which could allow refugees, who have lost everything to cross a border, or access vital aid and medical services. However, how private, personal information is recorded on a blockchain and who has access to it could also expose refugees to exploitation now or in the future.
How the system is coded, who has access to it, and which rules govern it have intentional and unintentional consequences. Understanding the ethical impacts of each of these decisions matters. To ensure the best outcomes for individuals and communities, blockchains should be intentionally designed with people in mind and guided by an ethical approach. The framework walks through a conventional design process that has been expanded to focus explicitly on how to apply an intentional approach:
- Define the problem being addressed and the desired outcomes
- Explicitly identify the ethical approach
- Assess the ecosystem of the desired outcome
- Determine the guiding design philosophy
- Determine if blockchain is an appropriate technology choice
Once blockchain is selected as an appropriate technology, the framework then moves iteratively through a detailed analysis of six root issues: governance, identity, verification/authentication, access, ownership of data, and security. At each stage, guiding questions serve to identify the effects of the design choices on the end users and communities.
- How is governance created and maintained?
- How is identity established?
- How are inputs verified and transactions authenticated?
- How is access defined, granted, and executed?
- How is ownership of data defined, granted, and executed?
- How is security set up and ensured?
Moving Ethics into Action
The promise of blockchain is real. Its key attributes of transparency, trust, and immutability have the potential to have real impact by increasing efficiency, security, and verifiability in the way that organizations operate, access to services is delivered, data is stored and controlled, and assets are tracked. However, the realization of this potential requires an ethical approach that recognizes the relationship between design and human outcomes.
As blockchain solutions are built and deployed, the Blockchain Ethical Design Framework provides a way to ensure that social value is protected. The diverse group of experts convened to inform this work need to continue to be at the forefront of efforts to bring ethics to action. As such, the Beeck Center is working with standards organizations and practitioners to integrate this framework within broader initiatives addressing digital inclusion and the ethical implementation of data and technology. From practitioners to policymakers, we all share the responsibility to continue the conversation and demand intentional ethical approaches in the design of data and technology for social good.