Nouriel Roubini on the Big Blockchain Lie

Arcade token

As I have written a number of times already, including in my previous post, I still don’t get (i) why cryptocurrencies create better market conditions for building ventures than good old fashioned money, and (ii) why tokenization – instead of just giving investors and workers plain old money – is the only viable path to building a successful business in the digital era. And when the answer comes in the form of a libertarian soundbite about democratization of money, the burden of regulations or the end of intermediation, I am convinced the speaker knows nothing about history, technology or business. The answer has sham (or gullible) written all over it.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in distributed ledgers (aka Blockchain technologies) as interesting solutions for solving some important transactional inefficiencies. It’s the whole obsession with tokenization and refusing to use real money that baffles me.

With this in mind, I was very encouraged by a series of Nouriel Roubini tweets over the weekend where Roubini – who made a public name for himself by being one of the few, brave souls to openly predict the 2008 economic crash – unabashedly called out the willful blindness, ignorance and outward deception of Crypto’s most ardent supporters. For example:

Then this morning, Roubini published this must-read article “Blockchain isn’t about democracy and decentralization – it’s about greed” where he makes all of the aforementioned arguments about the false narratives around cryptocurrencies, including:

In practice, blockchain is nothing more than a glorified spreadsheet. But it has also become the byword for a libertarian ideology that treats all governments, central banks, traditional financial institutions, and real-world currencies as evil concentrations of power that must be destroyed. Blockchain fundamentalists’ ideal world is one in which all economic activity and human interactions are subject to anarchist or libertarian decentralization. They would like the entirety of social and political life to end up on public ledgers that are supposedly “permissionless” (accessible to everyone) and “trustless” (not reliant on a credible intermediary such as a bank).

Yet far from ushering in a utopia, blockchain has given rise to a familiar form of economic hell. A few self-serving white men (there are hardly any women or minorities in the blockchain universe) pretending to be messiahs for the world’s impoverished, marginalized, and unbanked masses claim to have created billions of dollars of wealth out of nothing. But one need only consider the massive centralization of power among cryptocurrency “miners,” exchanges, developers, and wealth holders to see that blockchain is not about decentralization and democracy; it is about greed.

But he also makes an interesting observation about the non-crypto part of Blockchain as well:

Moreover, in cases where distributed-ledger technologies – so-called enterprise DLT – are actually being used, they have nothing to do with blockchain. They are private, centralized, and recorded on just a few controlled ledgers. They require permission for access, which is granted to qualified individuals. And, perhaps most important, they are based on trusted authorities that have established their credibility over time. All of which is to say, these are “blockchains” in name only.

It is telling that all “decentralized” blockchains end up being centralized, permissioned databases when they are actually put into use. As such, blockchain has not even improved upon the standard electronic spreadsheet, which was invented in 1979.

No serious institution would ever allow its transactions to be verified by an anonymous cartel operating from the shadows of the world’s authoritarian kleptocracies. So it is no surprise that whenever “blockchain” has been piloted in a traditional setting, it has either been thrown in the trash bin or turned into a private permissioned database that is nothing more than an Excel spreadsheet or a database with a misleading name.

I absolutely agree, and for the reasons he states, I actually like private blockchains. Not to change the world, but to improve processes. And if you control those spreadsheets, you are able to give your customers much more flexibility, protection and value. Works for me!

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Maybe the GDPR Isn’t So Bad for Blockchain After All?

Opps
An innocent “oops”

In two recent posts, thinking that I was really smart and clever, I questioned whether the GDPR posed a major hurdle for Blockchain-based technologies. Again, thinking that I was so smart and clever, I proudly took my arguments to one of my favorite privacy lawyers, confident I was about to impress her.

And as is often the case when I am feeling smart and clever, I was quickly put in my place by someone who actually knew what she was talking about.  First, let’s be fair to me. The GDPR does pose challenges for Blockchain-based technologies, as it does for any service whether on or offline that stores personal data. Data controllers will need to procure consent from data subjects and storage of data will need to be limited in time based on the purpose for which it is being stored.

The concern I originally raised was the conflict between Blockchains’ main feature of creating a permanent and unalterable record with the legal rights of a data subject to be able to modify or delete her personal data upon request (aka, the right to be forgotten). But a much smarter and more clever colleague – let’s call her Jane – explained to me that the right to be forgotten is not absolute.

Imagine you buy property. The local property registrar records the purchase with your name listed as the property owner. You may later sell that property, but you do not have a right under the GDPR to have your name removed from the public records relating to your purchase and ownership of that property. The purpose of registering property ownership is to have a permanent record of chain of ownership.

To the same extent, should you consent to making a transaction through a Blockchain-based service where you have knowledge that the record of that transaction will be permanent, your right to delete your personal data only comes into play when the purpose for retaining your data ceases to exist. For a Blockchain, that will likely be never.

power article

Think of a newspaper that publishes an article which features my name. The newspaper circulates thousands of copies. Like a Blockchain, the newspaper is distributed amongst thousands of people who have copies of the exact same story. We can verify that a single copy of that story has not been manipulated because we can compare it with thousands of other ones. Fake news aside, newspapers have the goal of being official accounts of events or newspapers of record. We should not then expect that upon request, every library and individual who has a copy of that newspaper article be required to destroy it or remove my name. Besides not being practical, it is contrary to the reason for having newspapers in the first place.

This morning I read a recent Grant Thorton report written by the Spanish lawyer Sara Esclapés Membrives on how the GDPR actually presents an opportunity for Blockchain-based technologies. The report corroborates Jane’s interpretation of the law, stating that the challenge for a Blockchain is to find methods for the future removal of an individual’s personal data “when the purpose for which the data were collected has finished.” But as with the newspaper example, the purpose of storing data in the Blockchain is permanency, which means that unless the Blockchain ceases to have activity and a reason for remaining in existence, it should be allowed to continue storing my name without me being able to invoke the right to erase my personal data.

Ultimately Blockchain-based technologies that store personal data need to focus on privacy by design, meaning developing an architecture that maximizes the individual’s ability to grant consent and opt-out of the service while providing the appropriate level of security for the storage of the data. But more importantly to be commercially viable, these technologies need to gain consumers’ confidence and trust. Otherwise consumers will not be comfortable sharing their data and will simply not use the service.