Building Ethical Design Into Blockchain

With blockchain technology in its formative stage, developers and practitioners have an opportunity to set ground rules that will protect people and ensure an ethical approach to applications for social good.

March 15, 2018 | By Lara Fishbane, Research Assistant

On March 8th, the Beeck Center hosted a dinner for industry practitioners and policymakers to preview our forthcoming Blockchain Ethical Design Framework and to discuss actionable strategies for the responsible development and implementation of blockchain solutions for social impact. In an effort to move discussion on blockchain’s value beyond the current media cycles of hype and despair, we convened 50 leaders for a conversation about the technology’s ethical implications and how to advance approaches that link the design of blockchain to human outcomes.

Sonal Shah, executive director of the Beeck Center, opened the night with a reminder that this conversation is part of an important, broader conversation that society should be having now about data, technology, and ethics. As technology has become increasingly cheap, capable, and ubiquitous, its potential to enable solutions that benefit marginalized and underserved communities has also increased. Globally, organizations are calling for technology-based solutions that improve people’s lives. At the same time, we’re realizing that technology is not neutral. “Values are always embedded in technology,” Shah said. Blockchain is no exception.

Beeck Center Senior Fellow Cara LaPointe, who leads our Blockchain for Social Good effort, pointed out, “the technology is developing at a pace much faster than our ability to create governance around that technology.” As evidence, hundreds of blockchain for social good pilot projects are already in the works. Blockchain for Change, a startup in New York, is exploring blockchain’s potential for distributing services to the city’s homeless population, and a number of global organizations are leveraging the technology to help refugees access financial services. How solutions like these are designed and implemented will have real ethical consequences for people. With the technology in its formative stage, developers and practitioners have an opportunity to set the ground rules that will protect people before any ill effects are cemented into standards.

LaPointe highlighted blockchain’s key characteristics: transparency, trust, and immutability, noting that these are not just characteristics; they are also values. The system is set up with an underlying idea about how the technology, and, by extension, the world, should be: transparent, decentralized, secure, auditable. And this world offers new promise in terms of creating and delivering untapped social value. Panelist David Treat, Managing Director at Accenture, spoke to blockchain’s potential for creating new and decentralized identity systems as well as bringing value directly to small businesses and farmers. Katherine Foster, a blockchain specialist at the World Bank, added that it more broadly could be leveraged to meet development goals, through efforts such as the distribution of food aid.

However, parallel to blockchain’s unprecedented opportunities lie ethical challenges. Each value is coupled with risk. Immutability offers security, but it also means that potentially erroneous information is made permanent. Transparency offers access, but it also leaves open the chance of exploitation for vulnerable populations. Rules-based trust offers decentralized collaboration between many parties, but as the Chief Digital Officer of CARE Macon Phillips pointed out, certain protocols to achieve consensus between these parties require large amounts of energy that are dangerous to the environment. When asked what makes ethics so difficult to achieve, LaPointe explained, “it’s complicated because everything is interconnected.”

LaPointe emphasized that each choice, no matter how small, has huge ethical implications. People are using the technology for the good it can provide, but they should think about the ethical responsibilities that come with it. Panelist Natalie Evans Harris, Chief Operating Officer at BrightHive, underscored the need for an ethical approach, reminding us that blockchain is about data and “data is people.” Real people’s lives will be affected by any solution that blockchain enables. To ensure that blockchain solutions deliver social good for all, developers should be intentional about building in inclusion and equity to the design.

Panelist Rahul Chandran, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Humanitarian Innovation, drove home the message, “I am unconvinced that blockchain is going to save humanity from itself. Without an ethical code, nothing will get to scale, we won’t get the partnerships together, and we also won’t try anything because we don’t get to experiment on people without ethical standards.”

The Beeck Center’s Ethical Design Framework is an actionable tool for the continued development of the technology for social good. While blockchain comes with inherent risks, that is not a reason to dismiss its potential social value. As Harris pointed out, “At some point, technology moves forward because it’s a benefit to individuals and society.” LaPointe added that if a technology can help people, it becomes an ethical obligation to use it. It’s important that it also be designed ethically and intentionally.