The Role of Lawyers and Government in the Blockchain Revolution

The Role of Lawyers and Government in the Blockchain Revolution

Recently, the BlockchainHub at York University’s Lassonde School of Engineering hosted a panel discussion entitled The Impact of Blockchain in Enabling Digital Identity.

Prior to the panel discussion on blockchain and digital identity, the audience watched a short video about the vastly complex, amorphous concept of blockchain. It highlighted the potential blockchain has to connect Canadians and explained the idea of a “digital ID”, including the requirement for verification by multiple factors. The video promised that blockchain is a secure way to go about our business, with the potential to create new possibilities that aren’t available in our current brick-and-mortar world.

We then turned our attention to the panel of experts: Chetan Phull, Principal Lawyer at SmartBlock; Karim Hamasni, Development Lead, Crypto Asset Innovation at RBC; Taha Jalil, Software Developer at Coinberry; and Neissan Monadjem, Senior Advisor for Blockchain and Fintech. The moderator asked a series of questions, and the answers I found most interesting were those related to the role of governments and lawyers in making sure blockchain is secure, beneficial for society, and widely adopted.

Monadjem is from Brazil. He explained how blockchain has been available as a tool for filing tax returns for years now in his home country. Yet, for many reasons, most of the country has refrained from taking part in this exciting wave of fintech. He says one major reason was the lack of education about the new system and its potential benefits when it first became available. He hopes that in Canada, the government will see the benefit in collaborating with developers to foster education, incentives and policies around the integration of blockchain technology in Canadians’ day-to-day lives.

One challenge that proponents will face is reconciling new applications for blockchain technology with our current privacy law framework. Phull discussed the recent complications with Libra, Facebook’s cryptocurrency. He explains that Facebook promises to respect your privacy by not copying any of your data for its records, yet anti-money laundering laws require that Facebook keep diligent records. In a world where we want secure, yet efficient transactions, we need regulations that reconcile society’s need for accountability with most people’s fundamental desire for privacy.

One area that might show improvement on the privacy front is data collection for targeted advertising. The panelists believed that implementing blockchain technologies could allow for users to own their data and even monetize on it if they so choose. By taking out the middle player in a transaction, you take out the company that will exploit your data. Instead, you as the user have the potential to sell your data in exchange for personalized advertisements, that you might actually want to see. If citizens are concerned with privacy, it’s possible that having the government require blockchain technologies to give users ownership over their own data collected in the course of a transaction would provide a great incentive for blockchain adoption.

How about blockchain’s effect on governmental processes? Monadjem, in a revolutionary and impassioned moment, suggested to the audience that Canadians could have daily, or even hourly elections. By voting through their blockchain keys, Canadians could provide immediate feedback to our decision makers, who could know exactly where they stood with voters after each decision or speech. Monadjem points out that citizens could hold politicians accountable this way, abandoning the outdated practice of voting every four years in favour of daily or even hourly votes that could change who is in power.

Phull pointed out that this would require extraordinarily complex constitutional changes, especially if these votes could take someone out of their elected office. And, while it might enhance voter participation, it might also increase the risk of vote-buying on certain issues. Or, even worse, apathetic young voters’ phones might be co-opted by opinionated parents across the country, skewing the votes. The debate between Monadjem and Phull was an interesting glimpse into the vastly different outlooks between those behind the technology, and those responsible for regulating it. Phull acknowledged that lawyers are the ones who have to point out every obstacle, and then still hope that computer scientists and engineers will want to go ahead despite those obstacles. Monadjem agreed and shared his view that computer scientists and engineers need to aim high, and think beyond our current frameworks in order for technology to constantly improve.

This is my second time attending an event presented by blockchain experts, and I’m still wrapping my mind around the concept. However, even though there may be more questions than answers about where blockchain technology can go at this point,one consensus we have reached thus far is that regulatory players and those in the technology space need to collaborate more.” Both parties can learn from each other about the complexities of developing new technology within the constraints of the law. Soon, blockchain technology may be central to our interactions with government, and with each other.

Written by Rachel Marcus, Guest Editor of the IPilogue and JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.