How We Can Encode Human Rights In The Blockchain

Essay by Nathan Schneider: “Imagine there is a new decentralized finance app quietly spreading around the world that’s like a payday lender from hell. Call it DevilsBridge. Rather than getting it from the App Store, you access its blockchain contracts directly, using a Web browser with a crypto-wallet plugin. DevilsBridge provides small loans in cryptocurrency that “bridge” people to the next paycheck. The interest rates are far below those of conventional payday lenders, which is life-changing for many users.

But if the payments go unpaid, they grow. They balloon. They reach multiples upon multiples of the principal. As time goes on, pressure ratchets up on borrowers, who become notorious for undertaking desperate, violent crimes to pay back their exorbitant debts. The deal, after all, is that if a debt reaches the magic threshold of $1 million, the debtor becomes a target. A private market of poison-dart-shooting drones receives a bounty to assassinate the mega-debtors.

Anywhere there are laws, of course, this is all wildly illegal. But nobody knows who created DevilDAO, the decentralized autonomous organization that operates DevilsBridge, or who its members are. The identities of the drone owners also hide behind cryptographic gibberish. Sometimes local police can trace the drones back to their bases, or investigators can trace a DevilDAO member’s address to a real person. But in most places where the assassinations happen, authorities are ill-equipped for airborne chases or scrutinizing blockchain analytics.

This may sound like a cartoonish scenario, but it’s freshly plausible thanks to the advent of decentralized, autonomous systems on blockchains. Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin jokingly nodded to such dystopian possibilities in early 2014, when he listed possible uses for his proposed blockchain, from crop insurance to decentralized social networks — or perhaps, he said as he walked away from the mic, it could allow for the creation of Skynet, the robot intelligence in the “Terminator” movies that tries to exterminate the human race.

The potential for blockchain-enabled human-rights abuses is real. At the same time, these technologies introduce new ways of encoding and enforcing rights. Imagine the blockchain that DevilsBridge runs on introduces a software update. It bans any smart contract that kills humans. An anonymous investigator presents evidence of what the app is doing, and an anonymous jury confirms its validity; instantly, the contracts for DevilsBridge and DevilDAO no longer function…(More)”.