Most of the hype concerning blockchain revolves around its applications in finance and business. The cryptocurrency market and Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) still dominate discussions about the technology and billions of dollars continue to flow into the space, but the focus has mainly been directed towards blockchain’s use as a money-making technology.
People tend to gloss over the possible applications for the public good from deploying blockchain or distributed ledger technology (DLT). And, to quote George Washington, the first President of the United States (U.S.) and one of the nation’s Founding Fathers: “I have no other view than to promote the public good, and am unambitious of honors not founded in the approbation of my Country.”
Now this could be viewed as quite unfortunate when considering that the security, transparency and immutability that blockchain technology provides makes it a prime tool for such efforts. While Bitcoin was conceived in reaction to the financial crisis of the late noughties (2000s) and slated to be a digital currency free from the influence of financial institutions, not many today are familiar with these roots.
So, it should be seen positively that a number of projects are pursuing this “for-the-people” viewpoint and offering mechanisms to promote fairness and equality. To this end a number of initiatives in the space have sprung and appear now to be gaining some traction. And, it all starts by offering an amazing product or service to gain traction.
Pioneering blockchain-based platform Horizon State, for example, recently announced several partnerships where its voting mechanisms will be put to use in an effort to encourage public engagement. And, decentralized social media platform Sapien secured $11 million from its ICO, which is allowing it to pursue its goal of providing equitable means for content creators to publish content.
Elsewhere, projects like Substratum, a U.S.-based software development firm that has architected, developed and deployed software solutions for Fortune 100 companies such as Apple, Disney Facebook and HP amongst others, and the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF), which is building an open source decentralized identity ecosystem for people, organizations, apps and devices, aim to provide decentralization to network infrastructures and digital identity, respectively.
So, with this in mind here are three areas where these projects are helping address modern societal problems and promote the public good.
1. Consensus Building
Despite the growth of democracy worldwide, the mechanisms used to facilitate the democratic process are far from perfect. For example, it is only lately that governments have adopted electronic voting to facilitate elections.
In electronic voting, often called “e-voting”, voters use an electronic device to make and record their ballot choices. Voting choices are recorded on the machine itself or the machine generates a token on which the choices are recorded.
Electronic voting gained popularity in Estonia back in 2001 with the “e-minded” coalition government. The country became the first in the world to hold legally binding general elections over the Internet with their pilot project for the municipal elections in 2005 and in 2014 became the first state to provide e-residency. Further, the Estonian parliamentary election in 2007 also used Internet voting – another world first.
Even the likes of U.S. President Donald Trump – prior to his Presidential election victory – applied for and was granted Estonian e-residency. Trump’s interest in the e-residency was said to be sparked following a successful covert operation by the Estonian secret service ESSAD.
Trump was quoted in early 2016 by Estonian World, an online English-language media channel about the country, saying he liked the e-residency as he “likes big ideas”. He added: “I don’t like losers. If you’re going to be thinking, you may as well think big. It is not ripping us off like China or Japan or Mexico.”
Many countries and localities though still rely on manual paper-based methods, which are vulnerable to manipulation. However, even with the adoption of electronic methods, problems can still arise where software or hardware errors can lead to disastrous results and undermine the integrity of the process.
Horizon State, for example, promotes the use of blockchain for consensus-building. The venture’s platform enables organizations to vote on matters securely through digital ballot boxes. Votes are recorded on the Ethereum blockchain ensuring permanence and immutability. Voter identity is also kept anonymous and confidential to prevent potential coercion.
After holding a successful ICO last year, Horizon State is now focused on securing more partners that will use its platform. The platform recently made waves in Indonesia where it has formed partnerships including with economist Dr. Marzuki Usman and socio-religious group Nahdlatul Ulama.
The platform is also slated to be used in social reform and citizen involvement efforts. It will be used to empower citizens to securely vote on certain campaigns or policies. And, with the underprivileged in developing countries often disenfranchised in the decision-making processes, this gives them the opportunity to be more involved in their civic duties.
Oren Alazraki, CEO of Horizon State with some twenty years of executive experience within the IT sector, commenting late this March said: “We are already seeing a rapid surge of interest in our platform by organizations for engaging members in meaningful dialogue to improve organizational performance through improved decision-making and accountability.”
2. Free Speech
Democracy is also under threat today due to the growing influence of certain centralized platforms over free speech and the rampant use of disinformation campaigns on social media. These not only limit what kinds of viewpoints are made accessible to the public but also affect constituent opinion and behavior.
Centralized social media often exerts authority over the content published on their sites and services. Content producers can even feel exploited since these platforms readily obtain perpetual licenses to user-generated content, which they can monetize solely for their gain. They can also choose to arbitrarily censor and disallow certain content on their platform. Yet, fake news still proliferates throughout these platforms.
In response, blockchain-based platforms like Sapien provide alternatives to these centralized platforms. As a social media platform, it encourages free speech and the creation and sharing of high-quality content while discouraging fake news in the process.
Additionally, Sapien allows users to switch between public and private browsing to ensure the safety of private data. All chat and personal data are encrypted to prevent leaks.
Ankit Bhatia, CEO of Sapien, remarking last November stated: “Free speech is undoubtedly one of the most fundamental rights we have as humans. It grants us the ability to express our opinions, critique one another, and have meaningful discourse.”
He added: “Speech enables us reflect on the quality of our thoughts and actions. And when we are exposed to contrary evidence, we are given an opportunity to reassess our morals and even amend our understanding of reality.”
Content creators can also make premium content available on the platform through a content marketplace. By offering transparency and an inherent rewards mechanism, Sapien seeks to inspire users to focus on quality and interact with each other fairly.
3. Privacy and Data Ownership
Privacy has also become a major issue among users today. Some governments even go as far as monitoring and regulating Internet activities, which limit what citizens can do online. But what can even be more disconcerting is that, when it comes to protecting data, many also failed to display the same zeal they bring to policing user activity. Governments and others have put users and citizens at risk by exposing personal information to cyber-attacks.
Blockchain projects are touted as seeking to correct this. Substratum, for instance, provides a respite for territories that have repressive Internet access policies. As an open-source network that uses blockchain this venture’s technology allows users to use a distributed infrastructure.
Their mission is touted as bringing forth the free and fair Internet of the future by combining what is described as “proven technological building blocks with emergent technologies in an innovative and holistic way to help solve many of the problems that plague the modern Internet.”
Users will be able to host and access websites and applications without the need to rely on centralized data centers or use virtual private networks, privacy browsers and onion routers.
Commenting in relation to Internet censorship, Christian Pope, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Substratum, has posited in relation to Internet censorship: “We will not reach an acceptable outcome through government censorship. Success lies in individual verification, not in government overlap.”
Pope, who has served as VP of Marketing, CMO and a consultant with a key emphasis on B2B Fortune 1,000 and B2C start-ups, added: “What is needed is the ability for the individual to assure their network is trusted as well as the networks of his/her peers. A kind of verified armor carried from network to network ensuring safety and productivity. To maintain a free Internet, we cannot run to Internet censorship like a lamb to slaughter.”
Aside from governments, commercial services are also quite guilty of being quite invasive when it comes to user data. Google and Facebook, for example, rely heavily on the personas they have derived from user activity to fuel their advertising engine.
At times, enterprises could even be irresponsible. The massive hack on Equifax that compromised 147.9 million Americans’ personal and financial information underscored the weakness of relying on centralized authorities to comprehensively store and hold such data.
Indeed, issues surrounding privacy have ratcheted-up and dominated the headlines and consumer interest of late. The recent data scandal that embroiled Facebook through Cambridge Analytica’s clandestine activities may have impacted as many as 87 million Facebook users.
With privacy being more important than ever before, users are seeking the utmost anonymity. One cryptocurrency, CloakCoin, has embarked on providing owners with “innate financial freedom” in a simple, practical, economical and virtually instantaneous manner.
Their private, secure and untraceable payment system called ENIGMA, ensures users can transmit Cloak privately and securely to each other – with what it has claimed is reduced worry of “unwanted parties spying or hacking.”
Projects like Decentralized Identity Foundation aim to give users better control over their personal information. Towards that end, DIF is creating a universal verification system that would allow users, applications and devices to validate identities without the need for a centralized party.
DIF’s initiative allows users to register self-sovereign identifiers (i.e. lifetime portable identities for any person, organization or thing), store identity data securely and choose what information they share to others.
Having a self-sovereign identity, which is a smart identity, enables the holder to present verifiable credentials in a privacy-safe way. These credentials can represent things as diverse as an airline ticket or a driver’s license.
DIF’s use of blockchain and Zero-Trust data stores help mitigate breach risks and prevent other parties from exploiting user data for their own gain. The project has now gained strong following even from enterprise blockchain players like IBM as well as the Hyperledger project and various groups in the crypto space.
In essence, Zero Trust is a security concept, which is based on the belief that organizations should not automatically trust anything inside or outside its perimeters. They must instead verify anything and everything that seeks to connect to its systems prior to granting access.
Doing the Right Thing
The growth and success of these aforementioned projects should help spread awareness that blockchain is not really just about cryptocurrencies, but it is a tool for public good as well. Blockchain projects continue to challenge the power centralized authorities have over other facets of human activity and ensure the democratic process prevails.
Blockchain-based voting mechanisms can encourage citizens to participate in elections and the decision-making processes. Even those typically disenfranchised can now confidently participate knowing that their votes count. And, by encouraging decentralization and data ownership, these blockchain platforms also minimize the influence governments and large enterprises typically have over users and citizens. The upshot is that users are given back control over their data, privacy and intellectual properties.
Blockchain also encourages parties to be accountable for their actions. Transparency and immutability enable concerned parties to readily know the status and history of transactions, making sure that any dubious activities can be monitored and challenged. And, participants are ultimately compelled to do the right thing in their choices. So, faire la bonne chose.