Consolidation, Connection and Automation Differentiate Blockchain from Current Technologies
Following my last post about blockchain technology and the cannabis industry, a Canna Law Blog reader commented, “[m]aybe I’m missing something. How is this better than just scanning a barcode when the item changes hands like they do with FedEx?”
Great question. I asked similar questions early on in my work with blockchain technology. What differentiates blockchain from applications like DocuSign, DropBox and Google Drive which already provide a shared, instantaneous and relatively secure system.
Among other things, blockchain connects these isolated applications and consolidates them into one place — enabling faster, more secure, automated transactions. A barcode scan by FedEx is a single event trapped in the FedEx system. When shipping an item, FedEx, the shipper and the recipient can track the package by entering the tracking number on FedEx’s website. Blockchain, on the other hand, reveals all of the steps to all of the parties with permission to view the chain, such as the manufacturer, its suppliers, the seller, the various warehouses and intermediate sales channels (e.g., Amazon’s distributed sales network), the carrier (FedEx), the recipient, any inspectors at stages along the way, the paying bank, the receiving bank, the government taxing and other authorities. All are all linked. In a non-blockchain system, all of the various participants work on their own independent systems, which are arguably insecure and not linked into one, single, immutable ledger.
The FedEx scanning is, as you can see, only one small step in a larger chain of events and participants.
FedEx Scanning and Tracking Does Not Create Self-Executing Smart Contracts
In addition to the linking of participant networks as described above, blockchain technology can also be used to create self-executing “smart contracts,” where automatic and instantaneous responses are triggered by certain pre-defined events. Participants in a smart contract, for example, should get paid at the right time without the need for anyone to issue an invoice, receive an invoice, write a check, make a wire transfer, or execute a credit card transaction. Payment triggers would be written as code into the blockchain. According to Accenture, investment banks alone could save up to $12 billion per year by adopting blockchain and smart contracts. Gartner has estimated that by 2022, defined impact smart contracts will be in use by more than 25% of global organizations.
DocuSign is similarly just one small piece in a larger chain of events and participants. In a blockchain setting, a law firm would not be required to issue an invoice or to continually bug a client about paying a retainer as it would happen automatically. Submitting the engagement document to the blockchain with a digital signature would trigger a series of events. One event would be payment to the firm. The digital signature would be an authorization to the client’s bank to pay the bill automatically, with no additional approval needed from the client. If the payment is subject to conditions, then the “smart contract” would set out those conditions and the method for proving fulfillment. When fulfilled, the payment would be made. Consider the amount of time and friction that would save for a small entity. Then consider the amount of time and friction it would save for a large company and the economy as a whole.
Same with a DropBox type program. Once a document is accepted into a blockchain ledger, it does not just sit there inert as it does in DropBox. The entry into the ledger would trigger other actions: payment of a bill, issuance of a deed or registration of a deed of trust. Isolated transactions would be linked into the chain. If there is no need for this chain, e.g. if no network of participants exists, then blockchain is not required and the dead letter box of DropBox would be adequate.
The Downsides – Implementation Costs, Loss of Privacy and Intrusive Government Surveillance
Blockchain reduces time and friction, but what about the time and friction required to create a blockchain program, adapt old records into the system, program smart contracts with highly specific code language, and maintain the program over time? When blockchain’s benefits outweigh these downsides, we will see mass adoption of the technology.
As discussed in my previous article, blockchain technology has obvious benefits in the cannabis industry as a supply chain tracking mechanism. Regulators and technology companies have already shown interest in implementing a blockchain-based track and trace system. What has not been discussed, however, is how intrusive government participation could be if regulators are included as an authorized party in a blockchain system. Most would feel uncomfortable knowing the government could comb through all of their cannabis transaction histories with just one click. In fact, the Fourth Amendment protects United States citizens against such unreasonable searches. Further, the European Union’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation regarding consumer data privacy and ownership rights and the US Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and the SEC’s “Regulation SP” all require personal financial data be redactable—something not possible on an immutable platform.
It remains to be seen how blockchain systems will strike a balance between privacy rights and the needs of government regulators. We will likely see mechanisms to allow government review of transaction history only upon demonstration of probable cause or upon consent of the participants. We should also expect to see opposition from the cannabis business community to the ability of government to participate in the blockchain ledger at all. I will monitor developments in this space as the technology and regulations evolve and continue to post about them here.