How We Can Encode Human Rights In The Blockchain

The same crypto tools presently being used to bypass the international order could instead become the means of architecting a better one.

Alberto Miranda for Noema Magazine

Nathan Schneider is a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is the editor of “Proof of Stake: The Making of Ethereum and the Philosophy of Blockchains,” a collection of essays by Vitalik Buterin that will be published this September.

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.

Let’s be honest: the very possibility of human-rights enforcement goes against the dominant story of what blockchains are for. Ask your average crypto-bro why crypto needs to exist in the first place, and you will likely hear about “censorship resistance” and “immutability.” These bits of jargon mean that no gatekeeper can stop your transaction from going through, and once it has gone through, nobody can reverse it. Many crypto advocates believe that these, and these alone, are the rights that matter.

But blockchains can be better than immutability machines. They can enable new strategies for establishing and enforcing rights that, unlike the current regimes, do not rely on the assent of military-backed nation-states. Blockchains have the potential to create a new layer of global social contracts, in which human peers, more than territorial governments, are the protagonists.

What I am suggesting is more foundational than what people usually think of when they discuss blockchain for human rights: new apps for tracking supply chains or verifying votes or protecting news reports from censorship. Blockchains themselves could have human rights written into their basic protocols. Isaac Asimov famously outlined design “laws” that would prevent his sci-fi robots from turning on their makers. This new kind of autonomous technology should come with safeguards and fail-safes against causing harm to human life and to the planet we depend on.

Crypto is now somewhere between early adoption and ubiquity, heading toward the latter in fits and, every few years, very intensive starts. If advocates are serious about their ambitions to reshape global financial, social and political institutions, they are overdue for taking human rights seriously — for building an internet of rights.

The veteran journalist and tech activist Rebecca MacKinnon issued a warning last year to the utopian impulses of the Web3 world, from her own experience in Web2: “History will repeat itself unless we face the reality that no technology or innovation is capable of saving humanity from itself.” She wrote as the ills of the earlier regime were accumulating at a fever pitch. Facebook abetted genocide in Myanmar. Labor abuses by the likes of Uber and Amazon continue to mount. YouTube’s rabbit holes of pandemic misinformation were burrowing away the foundations of institutional trust.

Crypto could be worse than all that; money and power are written in the code, rather than merely acting on it from the outside. Governments have less ability to contain or constrain what happens there. Lines of accountability can be hidden behind cryptographic secrecy.

“Blockchains have the potential to create a new layer of global social contracts, in which human peers, more than territorial governments, are the protagonists.”

The danger signs are ample. Energy-intensive crypto “mining” has furnished a new way to profit from fossil fuels. Ponzi-style schemes target the users most desperate to catch a quick windfall. Rogue states are using crypto heists and ransomware payments to stockpile weapons. Crypto’s “freedom to transact” applies equally to Russian war criminals as to donors sending medical supplies to Ukraine. Web3 seems well on the way to outdoing the harms of Web2, all while advocates preach the dream of someday delivering convenient financial services to the world’s poor and reliable identity systems for stateless refugees. In the meantime, designers say that their blockchains are neutral, so what their designs enable isn’t their business anyway.

For MacKinnon, neutrality is a fiction that has to go. She saw the same neutrality talk in the early days of Web2, and it was always a lie, intentional or otherwise. Instead, she argues, designers should recognize the inevitable limits of their viewpoints, then actively anticipate and prevent possible harms, monitoring for unexpected feedback along the way. As crypto researchers Michael Zargham and Kelsie Nabben have pointed out, immutability and mutability already exist on a spectrum in crypto.

No technology is beyond the reach of human politics. There are always ways for humans to intervene and ways that the tech constrains them. Designers cannot really choose one or the other, only decide on a balance. To be neutral on human rights is in fact a choice not to consider human rights. Neutrality is an implied refusal, a missed opportunity, a failure of imagination.

After all, the present international order is not living up to its job. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy provided yet another reminder of this when he spoke to the United Nations Security Council on April 5: Why, he asked, should this institution even exist if it cannot halt an unprovoked invasion of his country? Russia is hardly the first nation to commit war crimes without fear of meaningful consequences. As Vladimir Putin likes to remind us, the United States has frequently violated international law, its leaders always confident that they will never face justice. As the climate crisis continues to worsen, meanwhile, the most carbon-emitting countries are competing with each other to drag their feet hardest against their non-binding commitments.

Blockchains could fill in where the international system has failed. Their smart contracts can enforce commitments that do not depend on any national legal regime. They could de-center governments — even corporations, too — as the main actors on the global stage. Through blockchains, agreements and their enforcement could occur without laws or lawyers, secured by participants’ joint involvement in a common network. If my home’s mortgage is on a blockchain, attached to a pact to install solar panels alongside 100,000 other borrowers around the world, I will install those panels. (Hopefully the contract has some kind of leniency if I have trouble with a payment.) If a government has its debt on a blockchain that bans the purchase of cluster bombs, that is a good reason not to get caught buying any. (Hopefully its weapons inspectors can be trusted.) Global networks may enable new kinds of enforcement that are unavailable to states.

Rights of a kind — particularly rights to cryptographic property and uncensored transactions — are already in the software. Bitcoin and Ethereum protect the right of whoever has the keys to an account to control its assets, no questions asked; Zcash and Monero provide an additional right to privacy by enabling untraceable payments. “Every line of code reflects a policy choice about the blockchain system as a whole,” writes legal scholar Angela Walch.

But are the existing crypto-policies sufficient for addressing the dangers they present, for starters, and are they fit for governing anything else?

Imagine a new blockchain protocol, FreeBlock, that advertises itself as “guaranteed slavery-free.” The need for it arose because advocacy groups began organizing boycotts of blockchains used in underground slave trading. The blockchain foundations considered this unfair; policing bad behavior wasn’t their job. But to play it safe, a group of app developers came together to create FreeBlock. Among its basic features is that, if a certain number of independent investigators associates an address with slave trading, it vanishes from the network. Its funds are redistributed to every other address.

Consider another fiction: FairPayDAO, a collective that maintains a token-curated registry of “FairPay Protocols.” Any DAO can apply by submitting evidence that payment to contributors is transparent and that there is a process for contesting discriminatory pay. If an audit of the underlying code passes without objection from FairPayDAO members, the applicant’s contract address is added to the registry. Meanwhile, a growing network of DAOs commits to only doing business with FairPay-certified entities.

In both cases, rights emerge through market pressures. Crypto has been a marketplace for governance ever since the first Bitcoin copycat coin appeared with modest tweaks to the underlying algorithm. The variety available in this marketplace has radically expanded since then. The core algorithms have been redesigned again and again.

Blockchains and DAOs can be run in many different ways, depending on the design of the underlying code. Decision-making may depend on the assent of large token holders or the validators of new transactions or a simple majority of human participants. It could depend on the representatives token-holders choose or a pre-selected elite. Maybe no decision-making is possible at all, other than quitting the protocol and starting again. The norms that accrue among participants matter, too. Some protocols have gathered welcoming communities, for instance, while others expect you to earn your stripes.

“To be neutral on human rights is in fact a choice not to consider human rights. Neutrality is an implied refusal, a missed opportunity, a failure of imagination.”

The crypto market has so far focused on the decision-making side of governance. But rights and protections are just as important. In meatspace democracy, most of us vote only every few years, but every day we expect rights to free speech and due process. If rights exist and are well enforced, they protect us from what might otherwise be a grueling economy of participation: a right to religious freedom means, at least in theory, that one need not constantly lobby to keep one’s religion from being outlawed. Basic rights, we hope, can be taken for granted, so we can focus our energy elsewhere. Managing limited attention spans will be especially important if we are to be not merely citizens of one country but of a few dozen DAOs.

The marketplace for governance is already beginning to inscribe common-good commitments into code. The blockchain 0L automatically directs half of all validator rewards — the new tokens created to pay network maintainers — toward users who help build shared infrastructure. While still short of FairPayDAO, this “labor focused economy” helps ensure that builders will have wealth and power in the system alongside investors. The Celo protocol, meanwhile, is programmed to buy daily tree-planting carbon offsets that counteract the blockchain’s activity. This design has clear market motivations. When Kickstarter announced that it would be using Celo to build a crowdfunding protocol, the company had an answer to fears that going crypto would mean more carbon emissions.

More strenuous protocol policies are possible, too. A blockchain like Bitcoin that uses “proof of work” mining — where computers secure the network by performing energy-intensive calculations — could ban carbon-emitting miners from receiving rewards. If a mining facility were secretly running on power from a neighboring coal plant, an employee there might stand to win 10 years’ pay for publishing evidence of the violation. If a tribunal of users validates the evidence, an automatic fine could be siphoned from the mine’s account and it could be banned from receiving further rewards. Businesses using that blockchain could then assure their customers that the underlying infrastructure is carbon-zero.

One might hope that basic fairness and safety should have long-term appeal for business. I suspect it will not be long before elements of government financial regulations — say, transparency requirements and investor protections — start getting hard-coded into blockchains. Proximity to obvious wrongdoing can be a brand liability, even in crypto. But if foregoing experience is any indication, relying on a self-interested market alone to achieve the common good is a fool’s errand. Stock markets seem intent on making Earth uninhabitable and reward abusive labor conditions anywhere they can get away with it. The marketing of most crypto infrastructure similarly feeds the urges of short-term profit-seekers: Rock-bottom fees! Amazing yields! Achieving an internet of rights will require more than competition.

How else could we decide what rights are encoded in these systems? Blockchain engineers, as a sort of guild, could pressure each other to incorporate ever more strenuous protections. Users could organize to demand rights as a prerequisite for their participation — just as many artists and collectors have demanded a decarbonized NFT market. Coalitions of crypto projects could offer shared services in exchange for adhering to certain commitments, as in the case of FreeBlock.

Government regulators, also, can require that legal use of crypto depends on using rights-respecting infrastructure. This might look like the U.S. Treasury’s sanctions on for enabling North Korean hackers to launder their crypto-spoils, for instance, or the SEC’s safe harbor that protects blockchains from securities law if power is “sufficiently decentralized.” Even if blockchain-based rights don’t rely on territorial states, those states can play a role in birthing this new regime.

The point, however, should not be to merely recapitulate the preferences of nation-states on blockchains. Governments enforce human rights selectively, at best, and often cruelly. State-imposed sanctions inflict collateral damage on civilians’ economic lives, despite weak evidence that doing so improves the behavior of repressive governments. Such sanctions have forced crypto projects to refuse service to people who happen to live under sanctioned regimes, such as in Iran and Cuba. Blockchains should not replicate such counterproductive blockades.

Governments also often have political incentives to take moralistic stands against activities like consensual sex work or to privilege a majority voting bloc over repressed minorities. With distinct and diverse governance designs, blockchains can help protect the kinds of rights that states are badly suited to defending. Human rights on blockchains can and should look different from those of nations. Blockchains worth having should expand our sense of what kinds of rights are reasonable to imagine and to expect for ourselves.

To explore these possibilities does not require assuming that there is some single set of rights that should apply to everyone, everywhere. Whether moral universals exist or not, purporting to know them carries the risk of imposing one culture’s priorities and values on others. Human rights have always been vulnerable to this concern. Yet blockchains carry that claim to be universal from the start, with their singular tokens, agreed-on ledgers and obligatory protocols. It seems like if universal rights belong anywhere, it is here. At the same time, since many blockchains can exist simultaneously, many rights regimes can overlap and interact, serving different needs and uses.

Rebecca MacKinnon’s warning about “what to get right first” in Web3 recommends “establishing grievance and remedy mechanisms” for human rights. Web2, she finds, failed to do this; recent efforts like Facebook’s Oversight Board have been too little, too late. The 20th-century global governance system includes the United Nations, the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Court and countless NGOs. Governments can declare cases against each other, and advocacy organizations can amplify the voices of people who have experienced harm. But if wrongs occur on social media or through blockchains, whom do you call?

The most obvious site for rights mechanisms is on the level of blockchain protocols themselves. Various blockchains could adopt their own software interpretations of, say, an article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Providing an appealing set of rights could be part of what attracts users to one protocol over another. Enforcement might involve fact-finding and juries, with the power to reverse transactions, eliminate user addresses and redistribute funds. Due process would be defined in the protocol. Rather than having to rely on armies of diplomats and lawyers, any user might be able to initiate a grievance.

Some rights might be best handled by individual apps, since the meaning of concepts like privacy and freedom might depend on the specific context. To avoid excessive duplication, developers could rely on shared software libraries or commercial products that provide rights-as-a-service, so they don’t have to create functionality from scratch.

“Blockchains could enforce labor rights, incentivize decarbonization, and impose targeted sanctions. They could establish fair, context-aware due process.”

A healthy human rights ecosystem should make life easier for crypto builders, not harder. Offline, most businesses do not feel the need to worry about international human rights agreements because they expect that their national governments are taking care of it. Compliance happens through nesting: Stay within local law, and you won’t run afoul of international law. If there were general agreement on blockchain-based rights, entrepreneurs could take them for granted and save their energy for their products. A system of rights could also help blockchain designers counteract the tendency toward plutocracy that keeps plaguing them, by ensuring that systems account for people, not just tokens.

If designers recognize the need for inscribing human rights into blockchains — or are forced to do it — the same crypto tools presently being used to bypass the international order could instead become the means of architecting a better one. Blockchains could enforce labor rights, incentivize decarbonization, and impose targeted sanctions. They could establish fair, context-aware due process. Rather than relying on military power, these systems would exploit the increasingly widespread dependence on digital networks to enforce people’s rights. Such systems could someday defeat military powers without firing a shot.

Imagine, for instance, that the United States is considering an invasion of Haiti. New oil reserves have been discovered there, and U.S. operatives manufacture a political crisis. Russia and China are reluctant to defend Haiti for fear of starting a nuclear conflict, and the United Nations cannot act without U.S. assent. But the U.S. president remembers that her taxation system relies on a blockchain called PublicLedger, which halts a government’s smart contracts if anyone in the world can provide proof it has committed war crimes. The president realizes that the cost of losing the efficient PublicLedger infrastructure is higher than what could be gained from Haiti’s oil. She conjures an excuse to cancel the invasion.

The world is overdue for a system for human rights with this kind of teeth. Blockchains could enable that. But for the most part, today, they are serving the opposite purpose, as tools for bypassing what modest protections the world order already has. Let human rights serve as a litmus test. Anyone claiming to build the infrastructure for the next world order should be expected to tell us: Will this expand or undermine the rights we have already struggled to win?