The Promise of, and Legal Issues and Challenges With, Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology

[Originally published in December 2016. Updated on April 7, 2018 to clarify the explanation of blockchain and distributed ledger technology and to add more information on the legal risks and challenges.]

Blockchain and distributed ledger technology is poised to revolutionize many aspects of the world around us. It may prove to be as disruptive and innovative of a force as augmented reality. Many people associate “blockchain” with “Bitcoin,” whose meteoric rise as a cryptocurrency has been well reported. However, they are not one and the same. Bitcoin is an application; blockchain and distributed ledger technology are the methods behind it.  But what is it? How might it change the world? And what legal and other risks does it bring?

What is Distributed Ledger Technology and Blockchain?

The Old – Centralized Ledgers

Centralized ledgers (a database, list, or other information record) have played an important role in commerce for millennia, recording information about things such as physical property, intangible property including financial holdings, and other assets. The most recent innovation in centralized ledgers has been the move from physical ledgers (paper, stone tablets, etc.) to digital ledgers stored electronically. A “centralized ledger” is a ledger maintained and administered in a single, central location (e.g., a computer database stored on a server) accessible by anyone without use of access controls (public) or through an access control layer by persons or organizations with valid login credentials (permissive). This is a “hub-and-spoke” system of data access and management. Centralized ledgers have historically had many benefits, such as minimized data redundancy, limited number of access points to the data for security purposes, centralized administration, and centralized end user access. However, there are also disadvantages, such as greater potential for loss or inaccessibility if the central location suffers a hardware failure or connectivity outage, inability to recover lost data elements, and a dependence on network connectivity to allow access to the ledger by its users.

The New – Distributed Ledgers

Distributed ledgers seek to address these disadvantages by distributing (mirroring) the ledger contents to a network of participants (aka “nodes”) through a software program so that each participant has a complete and identical copy of the ledger, and ensuring all nodes agree on changes to the distributed ledger. Nodes can be individuals, sites, companies/institutions, geographical areas, etc. There is no centralized administrator or “primary node” — if a change is made to one copy of the ledger, that change is automatically propagated to all copies of the ledger in the system based on the rules of the system (called a “consensus algorithm“) which ensures that each distributed copy of the ledger is identical. For example, in Bitcoin, each node uses an algorithm that gives a score to each version of the database, and if a node receives a higher scoring version of the ledger, it adopts the higher scoring version and automatically transmits it to other nodes. Since the distributed ledger software on each node validates each addition to the distributed ledger, it’s extremely difficult to introduce a fraudulent transaction (to put it another way, transactions are audited in real time). Essentially, each node builds an identical version of the distributed ledger using the information it receives from other nodes. The use of distributed models in computing goes back to the origins of the Internet itself — ARPANET, which evolved into what we know today as the Internet, used a distributed model instead of a linear model to manage the transfer of data packets between computer networks.

The software on each node uses cryptographic signatures to verify that it is authorized to view entries in, and make changes to, the distributed ledger. If a participant with rights to modify the ledger (e.g., a digital token giving the participant the right to record a transaction) makes an addition to the ledger using the participant’s secure keys (e.g., a record of a change in ownership of an asset or recording of a new asset), the addition to the ledger is validated by the consensus algorithm and propagated to all mirrored copies of the ledger, which helps to ensure that the distributed ledger is auditable and verifiable. A key difference between centralized and distributed ledgers is that a distributed ledger cannot be forked — if you make a copy of a centralized ledger and store it somewhere else, it will be out of sync with the original copy, whereas each copy of a distributed ledger is kept identical by the client software.

Thus, the five typical characteristics of a distributed ledger are:

  1. distributed copies among nodes via client software;
  2. cryptographic signatures, or “keys,” to allow nodes to view, or add to, the distributed ledger in an auditable and verifiable fashion;
  3. a digital token (better known as a cryptocurrency) used within many distributed ledger networks to allow participants to record ledger entries;
  4. a consensus algorithm to ensure distributed copies of the ledger match among participants without the need for a centralized administrator; and
  5. record permanency so that verified entry accepted to the ledger via the consensus algorithm becomes permanent (it can be corrected via a later addition to the ledger but never removed).

Blockchain

While most press reporting around blockchains equates blockchain with distributed ledgers, a “blockchain” is a specific type of distributed ledger. Each record of new value added to the ledger and each transaction affecting entries in the ledger (which we will collectively call a “block“) includes a timestamp and a cryptographic verification code based on a data signature or “hash” from the previous block which “chains” it to the previous block, forming a “chain of blocks,” or “blockchain,” within the nodes hosting the blockchain. Because each block is cryptographically tied to the previous block via one-way hash, the entire chain is secure – a client can verify that a block in the blockchain validates against the previous block, but it does not allow someone to trace the blockchain forward. If a block in the chain is altered, it changes the hash value and no longer matches the hash stored in later blocks, and the alteration will be rejected by the nodes on the blockchain network. In a blockchain, transactions entered into the system during a specified period of time are bundled together and added to the blockchain as a new block.

There are three primary types of blockchain networks – public, private, and permissioned.

  • Public blockchains allow anyone to participate, and therefore rely more heavily on a strong consensus algorithm to ensure the requisite level of trust between blockchain participants.
  • Private blockchains are limited to a discrete and specified group of participants, are usually small, and may not require use of a cryptocurrency given the inherent level of trust amount private blockchain participants. Private blockchains often do not require a strong consensus algorithm.
  • Permissioned blockchains function much like public blockchains, but require participants have permission to access, transact on, or create new blocks within a blockchain.

Tennessee’s recent state law on blockchain, Tn. Stat. § 47-10-201, contains a good summary definition.  It defines “blockchain technology” as “distributed ledger technology that uses a distributed, decentralized, shared and replicated ledger, which may be public or private, permissioned or permissionless, or driven by tokenized crypto currencies or tokenless.  The data on the ledger is protected with cryptography, is immutable and auditable, and provides an uncensored truth.”  Arizona’s statutory definition (which predates Tennessee’s) is almost identical, except that “crypto currencies” is replaced with “crypto economics.”

Bitcoin is an early, and famous, example of a public blockchain application. Nodes on the Bitcoin blockchain network earn new bitcoins as a reward for solving a cryptographic puzzle through computing power, or “mining.” Transactions for the purchase and sale of bitcoins are also recorded in a block in the Bitcoin blockchain – the blockchain is the public ledger of all Bitcoin transactions. In other blockchain applications, the cyrptocurrency is used as payment for blockchain transactions.

Blockchain and distributed ledger technology is not intended to fully replace existing centralized ledgers such as databases. If a number of parties using different systems need to track something electronically that changes or updates frequently, a distributed ledger may be a good solution. If those needs are not there, or if there is a continuing need to rely on paper transaction records, a centralized ledger continues to be the better choice. Companies need to ensure there is a compelling ROI and business case before implementing a blockchain development and implementation program.

Smart Contracts

An important concept in blockchain technology is the “smart contract.”  Tennessee’s blockchain law defines a smart contract as “an event-driven program, that runs on a distributed, decentralized, shared and replicated ledger and that can take custody over and instruct transfer of assets on that ledger.” Arizona’s definition is identical other than an additional reference to state.  In other words, a smart contract is a computer program encoded into a blockchain that digitally verifies, executes, and/or enforces a contract without the need for human intervention. Where a traditional contract involves risk that a party will fail to perform (e.g., a shipper delivers products but the recipient fails to make payment for the products), smart contracts are self-executing and self-verifying.  In a smart contract for the purchase of goods tracked via blockchain, the seller and buyer would program a smart contract into the blockchain.  Once the delivery record is added to the blockchain, the smart contract automatically validates the shipper’s performance, and automatically triggers payment from the buyer.  Since execution of a smart contract is part of the blockchain, it is permanent once completed. Blockchain protocols such as Ethereum have developed programming languages for smart contracts.

How Might Blockchain and Distributed Ledgers Change the World?

The impact of new technology presents at first as rapidly disruptive (positively and negatively), but often manifests organically and transparently to change the world over time.

Roy Amara, a former president of the Institute of the Future, said that people overestimate a technology’s effect in the short term and underestimate it in the long run, a statement known as “Amara’s Law.” However, I think a corollary is in order – the impact of new technology presents at first as rapidly disruptive (both positively and negatively), but often manifests organically and transparently to change the world over time at a proportional rate to the maturity of the commercially available applications, to consensus on technological standards, and to decreasing costs to implement (and increasing ROI from implementing) the technology in practical business and consumer situations. For example, RFID technology was touted early on as a “change the world” technology, and it has — but most prominently through integration of the technology organic and innovative improvements to supply chain and inventory management. Social networking is viewed by many as a “killer app” (a catalyst that accelerates the adoption of a new technology) which helped usher in the third Age of the Internet, and it has changed the world by changing how we connect with others. Both took years to become pervasive in society and industry.

Blockchain and distributed ledger networks have the potential to change the way many systems and business processes work across industries. Financial and currency transactions are a prominent emerging application of distributed ledger networks and blockchain technology. Since blockchain and distributed ledger networks are platform-agnostic, a distributed ledger could be stored in different hardware/software configurations across different nodes, reducing the need for expensive and time-consuming upgrades to support the distributed model. For example, a permissioned blockchain model could help an organization such as the US Veterans Administration better manage appointment scheduling across a large number of hospitals and clinics (in fact, a resolution was recently passed in the US House of Representatives promoting just that, “to ensure transparency and accountability.” Industry groups, such as the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA), have sprung up to help develop and promote industry-specific blockchain standards and applications.

The technology could also be used in applications such as better and more secure management of governmental records and other services; tracking tax collection and receipts; managing assets; identity verification; decentralized voting; managing and tracking inventory levels and B2B/B2C product fulfillment; tracking the “data supply chain” for the flow of data among systems; managing system access controls; protection of critical public and privacy infrastructure; tracking royalties due to artists for the use of their works; and use of smart contracts to digitally create, execute, and enforce agreements between parties via blockchain transactions. Distributed ledger networks have the advantage of being more secure as the consensus algorithm makes it considerably difficult for a cyber-attacker to successfully alter the distributed ledger. It could also allow for greater access transparency, a central tenet of many privacy principles, by allowing individuals to access records in the ledger relating to them or containing their information.

Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Legal Risks and Issues

As with any new technology, blockchain creates some interesting conflicts with existing laws and regulations and raises interesting and complex legal and compliance issues.  These include:

Data privacy issues. Distributed ledger technology such as blockchain is inherently designed to share information among every participant and node. If information in a ledger transaction or block contains private information, such as an account number or company confidential information, it will be visible to every user of every node. This is one of the reasons permissive and privacy distributed ledgers are a focus of many companies seeking to innovate in the space. Additionally, as nodes in a distributed ledger network can be geographically disparate, rules and requirements for the transfer of data between geographies may play a major role. It is also possible that at some point in the future decryption technology will evolve to the point where cryptographic signatures used in blockchain and distributed ledgers may no longer be considered safe.

EU personal data and the “Right to be Forgotten.”  In the EU, personal privacy is considered a fundamental human right under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is Europe’s new comprehensive data protection framework that as of May 25, 2018 has the force of law in every EU member state.  Under Article 17 of the GDPR, EU data subjects have a “right to be forgotten” which requires companies to erase personal information about that data subject if certain conditions are met (e.g., the personal data is no longer necessary in relation to the purposes for which they were collected or otherwise processed). This right has cropped up in the United States as well, for example, in California for minors under 18 with respect to websites, social media sites, mobile apps, and other online services under Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 22580-81.  The “right to be forgotten” creates a direct conflict with the permanency of blockchain.  Companies should factor the “right to be forgotten” into their blockchain development planning, e.g., consider hashing technologies to pseudonymize personal data before encoding it into a blockchain, or other ways to avoid this conflict.  Developments in blockchain and distributed ledger technology may also arise to address this issue.

Jurisdictional issues.  The nodes in a blockchain are often in multiple jurisdictions around the country and/or around the world.  As each is a perfect copy, this can create issues from a jurisdictional perspective.  Legal concepts such as title, contract law, regulatory requirements, etc. differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Does a blockchain network need to comply with the laws of every jurisdiction in which a node is operated?  Cross-border enforcement may become an issue – will one jurisdiction seek to impose its laws on all other nodes of a blockchain network? Blockchain network operators should consider how to specify, in a binding manner, a single choice of law and venue to govern disputes arising from the blockchain network and provide specificity as to compliance requirements.  This jurisdictional issue will likely lead to races between jurisdictions to establish themselves as a “blockchain and distributed ledger friendly” jurisdiction, just as Delaware established itself as a “corporation-friendly” jurisdiction in which many corporations choose to incorporate.  Jurisdictional issues will also impact discovery of data within the digital ledger network, e.g., through subpoenas.  The rules regarding document discovery differ from state to state.  A company seeking to obtain blockchain data through judicial process may have the ability to engage in “forum shopping” to find the most convenient, and friendly, jurisdiction in which to file a document discovery request.

Record retention risks. One of the features of blockchain and distributed ledger networks is record permanency. This permanency may be incompatible with statutory requirements for data to be destroyed and deleted after a period of time, such as credit/debit card data under PCI rules and HR data under various regulatory requirements, and under privacy frameworks such as the GDPR.  It also likely conflicts with a company’s existing record retention policies.  Given these factors, companies looking to introduce blockchain technology should review their record retention policies and create a separate “permanent” category for data stored in blockchain applications.  At the same time, a blockchain is permanent so long as the blockchain itself still exists.

Service Level Agreements.  Many companies include a service level agreement (SLA) in their service agreements, which provides committed minimum service levels at which the service will perform, and often includes remedies for a breach of the SLA.  SLAs are relatively easy to offer when they are limited to a company’s own systems and infrastructure.  However, a blockchain (other than perhaps a small private blockchain) may by its very nature be distributed beyond a company’s own network.  SLAs often exclude from downtime issues outside of its control, e.g., downtime caused by a third party’s hardware or software.  Does a third-party node still fit within this? Many SLAs also address latency, i.e., the time it takes for a system to respond to an instruction. Companies will also need to think about what measure of latency (if any) should apply to transactions via blockchain and other distributed ledgers, and how to address blockchain in their SLAs.

Liability and Force Majeure issues. Companies routinely implement controls (processes and procedures) to manage their systems and operations, which controls may be audited by customers/partners or certified under standards such as SOC 2. But who is accountable for a database distributed across geographies and companies? Use of a distributed ledger system with nodes outside of a company’s systems means ceding some control to an automated process and to a decentralized group of participants in the distributed ledger/blockchain. An error in a record in a distributed ledger becomes permanent and can be corrected but never removed. Is an issue with a third-party node considered a force majeure event which excuses performance under an agreement? Is the type of network (public, private or permissioned) a factor?  Companies will need to think about how blockchain should tie into an agreement’s general force majeure provision, and how to allocate blockchain risk within a contract (through indemnities, limitation of liability, etc.).

Insurance issues.  Any new technology is quickly tested under insurance policies.  Companies will begin to tender claims under their electronic errors and omissions policies, commercial general liability policies, and possibly specialized cyber policies.  As insurance companies build up experience with blockchain claims, companies will likely see new endorsements and exclusions limiting insurance carriers’ liability under standard policies for blockchain-related losses.  This is often closely followed by the emergence of custom policy riders (for additional premium) to provide add-on insurance protection for blockchain-related losses.  Companies implementing blockchain technologies may want to discuss blockchain-related losses with their insurance carriers.

Intellectual property issues.  As with any new technology, there has already been a flood of patent applications by companies “staking their claim” in the brave new frontier of blockchain and distributed ledger. While the core technology is open source, companies have created proprietary advancements in which they may assert patent or other intellectual property rights.  Dozens of companies have already obtained blockchain patents.  Technology and other financial companies have undoubtedly already filed large numbers of blockchain patents that are working their way through the Patent and Trademark Office.  As is often the case with new technologies, there will likely be a flurry of patent infringement lawsuits as new patent holders seek to enforce their exclusive rights to their inventions.  Adopters of blockchain using custom applications or non-standard implementations should be especially sensitive as to whether their application or implementation could potentially be infringing filed or issued blockchain patents.  Consulting external patent counsel knowledgeable in blockchain technology will become more and more important for these types of adopters.

Confidentiality issues. Information placed into a node of a public blockchain – even if that node is within a company’s own servers – is no different than putting code into GitHub. The result is that the information enters the public domain. Even with a private or permissioned blockchain, information encoded into the blockchain becomes visible to all participants with access rights.  A company’s use of a blockchain or distributed ledger to store confidential information, such as information subject to an NDA or the company’s own trade secrets, creates a risk of a breach of confidentiality obligations or loss of trade secret protection.  Companies should consider how to prevent confidential and other sensitive company information from being stored in blockchains in a manner that could result in a breach of confidentiality. Additionally, agreements routinely require the return or destruction of the discloser’s confidential information and other provided data and/or materials upon termination or expiration. An exception for data encoded onto a blockchain must be considered.

Discovery and Subpoenas.  Information encoded into a public blockchain may be considered in the public domain.  When litigation arises, will companies be able to push back on a discovery request encompassing data in a blockchain by stating that it is publicly available?  If a person can find the identity of other nodes in a blockchain network, we may see an increase in subpoenas directed to a node for blockchain data within the copy of the blockchain or digital ledger hosted at that node (possibly based on favorable jurisdiction as noted above). Since every node maintains their own copy of a distributed ledger, and no one node owns or controls the data, this may affect the ability of a company to keep information out of third party hands as they may not have the ability to quash a subpoena directed at an independent node.

Application of existing legal structures to blockchain, smart contracts, and distributed ledgers. As is often the case, one of the challenges for lawyers and others is determining how existing laws and regulations will likely be interpreted to fit new technologies such as blockchain and distributed ledger technology; what new laws and regulations may be coming and how permissive or restrictive they may be; and how enforcement and penalties in connection with the new technologies under both new and existing laws will play out. “Smart contracts” that rely on computer algorithms to establish the formation and performance of contracts may challenge the nature and application of traditional legal principles of contract law such as contract formation and termination, and the traditional focus of laws on the acts of persons (not automated technologies), making it difficult for courts to stretch traditional contract law principles to the new technology.

Emerging laws.  It is axiomatic that law lags technology. The companies that immediately benefit from a new disruptive business method such as blockchain are those which seek to innovate applications of the method to monetize it, obtain a first mover advantage, and ideally seize significant market share for as long as possible. Industry groups and trade associations form to seek to promote it, and legislators take notice (especially given the meteoric rise of bitcoin prices during 2017). Legislators often jump to regulate something they don’t fully understand and whose potential is not fully realized, which can impede development and proliferation of the new technology.  A handful of states (including Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Delaware, Illinois, Vermont, and Wyoming) have already adopted blockchain-specific legislation, and this number will likely grow substantially in the next couple of years. Fortunately, the legislation enacted to date appears to support, rather than inhibit, blockchain technology. Other states have introduced or enacted legislation to study blockchain technology.

Disruptive technologies such as blockchain and distributed ledger technology bring both benefits and potential risks. If the benefits outweigh the risks on the whole, the public interest is not served when the legal, regulatory and privacy pendulum swings too far in response. The spread of blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies and applications will be dependent on the creation and fostering of a legal, regulatory, and privacy landscape that fosters innovation in the space.

Eric Lambert is the Commercial Counsel for the Transportation and Logistics division of Trimble Inc., an integrated technology and software provider focused on transforming how work is done across multiple professions throughout the world’s largest industries. He is counsel for the Trimble Transportation Mobility (including PeopleNet, Innovative Software Engineering, and Trimble Oil and Gas Services) and Trimble Transportation Enterprise (including TMW and 10-4 Systems) business units, leading providers of software and SaaS fleet mobility, communications, and data management solutions for transportation and logistics companies. He is a corporate generalist and proactive problem-solver who specializes in transactional agreements, technology/software/cloud, privacy, marketing and practical risk management. Eric is also a life-long techie, Internet junkie and avid reader of science fiction, and dabbles in a little voice-over work. Any opinions in this post are his own. This post does not constitute, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.

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