Bit coin and crypto “money”, are what people often associate with blockchain technology, but the reason I got involved with this amazing invention was the potential I saw that it may hold for human rights: for freedom, fairness, privacy and self actualization. For I saw – as do many – that the power of blockchain lies elsewhere than in “get rich quick” schemes. The power, I believe is in the chance to remove or bypass or at least lessen and make more transparent or accountable the behavior of central controller – the gate keeper. And with their removal so too censorship and despotic control is also removed. Consequently at heart, what the pseudonymous Satoshi has created in his/her/their white paper is a blue print or map to better facilitate or build a more democratic web: to give voice to the many and distribute the control or power. I know it is trite, but my work with refugees and migrants over the last twenty-five years or so has given me a profound appreciation that not everyone in the world has the protection we in the lucky country take for granted. It is through this lends that blockchain technology is so amazing and bristles with potential. Around 4.2 billion people live under authoritarian regimes that use money as a tool for surveillance and state control. Their currency is often debased, and they are, for the most part, cut off from the international system that we in Australia enjoy. For them, saving and transacting outside the government’s purview isn’t shady business. It’s a way to preserve their freedoms.
SO WHAT IS BLOCKCHAIN?
Basically, blockchain consolidates different innovations in order to produce a tamper-resistant distributed – decentralised – ledger of transactions. Where a transaction could be the exchange of money, as it is with cryptocurrencies, but also activities like completing a series of requirements for a certification, issuing of an educational credential, issuing an ID… – anything really that involves the digital transfer of something of value from one party to another.
The record of each transaction is stored in a blocks of information, including information such as a timestamp, currency amount, actions taken, etc. With the exception of the first block in the chain (called the “genesis block”), every block has two “hashed numbers” – one hash is matched with the number in the preceding block, and the second number will be matched to the next transaction. Thus, every transaction associated with that item of value will be recorded in a linear “chain of blocks” that makes up the entire ledger of transactions. Users can verify every block.
Nodes = Actors within a blockchain network, and each node has a copy of the digital ledger.
There is no central keeper of the Blocks, but rather throughout the blockchain network, with digital markers used to point towards the location of the next block. They can even be implemented without a central controller such as a bank, company, or government. Therefore given every block is tied to subsequent blocks, tampering with just one block would result in creating an entirely new blockchain – and blocks cannot be altered without the consensus. Thus, it is very difficult to tamper with just one block in the middle of the chain, and to attempt it would require a great deal of power and of computing power.
Human Rights in the digital world
Once it is understand or known that Visa Card shut off payments to Wikileaks it becomes apparent how precarious the situation of relying upon central controllers truly is. (Not to mention the many harrowing stories of “debanked” victims.) Working in administrative law the might of central controllers is all to apparent, and to ameliorate this imbalance is a good thing for individuals and society as a whole. It was a point taken by students in the protests in Hong Kong recently. Realizing that their Octopus cards (a contactless card smart card that can be used for transit payments) would be linked to their student IDs, they chose to not use those to pay for their subway fares on the way to the recent protests. Instead, they queued up to purchase subway tickets with cash. The principal threats to freedom of expression worldwide, and this has a ripple of consequences which affect other inalienable rights—most directly related, but not limited to: freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association. Freedom of expression is what stimulates communication needed to institute positive change and societal growth, and that expression also allows for informed citizens to participate in civil and political spheres.
So although it may not be a panacea to all the worlds ill, it is a powerful tool.