Law Itself is the Killer Blockchain App
Use of blockchains for so-called “smart contracts” is by now old news. But there is a lot more to law than contracts and blockchain technologies may hold the key needed to transition this field into the digital age.
On a panel discussion about blockchains and the law at the Legal Hackers Congress in NYC this weekend, I’ll provide a sneak-peek at a new, systematic approach for using open blockchains to open the law. All the law.
My remarks will include an early look at prototype tools enabling state legislatures and agencies to publish official statutes and regulations via ordinary government websites by leveraging blockchain validators to meet key Uniform Electronic Legal Materials Act requirements. This approach could become a more streamlined, simplified native path than use of GPG software by each jurisdiction or outsourcing. It works for federal and city laws too.
Blockchain technology can provide the basis of a complete legal stack that connects everything from individual authorizations and approvals to enforceable contracts and licenses right up to the applicable statutes and regulations defining and government aspects of each transaction and instrument. The distributed architecture of open blockchains provide a direct way to publicly verify data has not been altered since it was inscribed in a block and added to the chain. This public verifiability has already been recognized as sufficient for meeting the needs of self-authentication under the rules of evidence in the state of Vermont. It could also be used for self authenticating statutes and regulations by any — or every — jurisdiction.
It would be reasonable to assume government would already have public law available as public information on free, open and public information along with the dates of elections, addresses of tax departments and rules for passing a driver license exam. Since the 1990’s much money, effort and attention has been invested to move important public data and processes onto websites, apps and other Internet systems. And yet, much of the content of legislative, judicial and administrative legal information is not available. More to the point, to my knowledge, virtually no official public law is published on standard, freely accessible government websites and other Internet channels. If you read the small print on the laws government publishes on the web, you will see a notice that the content is not official, may not be accurate and a disclaimer not to rely on the words. Because the laws published on government websites are not official, they can’t be entered into evidence in a judicial case in order to rely on the actual enforceable law. I am aware of no official versions of statutes or regulations published on the government huge number of websites, open data portals, apps and other services provided by the federal, state or city government of the United States.
Given that law could (or should?) be the quintessential “online government” web resource, why is this information not on government sites and services now? There are several factors in play and the circumstances are somewhat confusing and complex. The hardest aspects of putting the content of legislated and regulated public law online relate issues like getting agreement on workflows and approval chains among relevant stakeholders, development formats and standards for structuring the data and content, refining the user interface so the information and behaviors are easy to use and quickly feel intuitive and other basic challenges of deploying public-facing digital publishing systems. The Free Law Founders is one good example of people coming together to solve these issues. The work is being addressed thanks to public sector leaders like New York City Councilor Ben Kallos and to mission-driven technically expert groups like the OpenGov Foundation and a diverse, growing range of stakeholders from industry to academia to volunteer civic hacking groups across the country and the world.
Establishing a common approach to ensuring the electronic content has not been accidentally changed or intentionally tampered is necessary to publish the authoritative, official version of the law online. However, I believe one of the strategic inhibitors that has been slowing broad agreement to move law onto the web with other public record and open data has been lack of a workable, nationally scalable and common approach to address the need to ensure the content has not been changed from the exact law that was actually enacted and promulgated. There are several free tools, apps and services that can provide this data integrity assurance and can work with any product, method or process used by governments that make laws. Every governmental organization that promulgates law uses publishing workflows that can include stamping a verifier to the blockchain as part of a final step when new or amended statutes, regulations, executive orders or other laws are confirmed for publication. This step can be made invisible, cause no discernible delay and yet could become the killer blockchain use case for law.
The result of leveraging existing blockchains to provide publicly verifiable public law would be to render the law a genuinely public resource that is definitely discoverable, routinely reproducible and continuously computable. This use of Blockchain can provide a verifiably valid way to provably identify, cite, link, track and map the law at large. Given the free availability of open blockchains, this method can provide a new kind of public infrastructural ledger service at practically no additional cost to the public. This use of open blockchains as part of promulgating public law would provide an official, verifiable and standard means of transforming law into machine readable, software usable and scientifically computational data.
The law has been unknowably voluminous and unusably complex for a long time now. However, when the law becomes publicly verifiable and openly computational, it will be possible to make more definite legal statements and ensure more predictable legal outcomes. A killer blockchain app to liberate law as verifiable, standard data may also hold the key to render law understandable and usable by people, groups and organizations.
Legal Hackers Talk:
Talk at Legal Hackers Internation Summit describing the LawChain.org prototype project idea:
Tools and Approaches
Open tools for prototype recommended by Jonathan Harvey-Buschel of MIT Bitcoin Club:
One service already does this: https://blocksign.com/
1. Have users Download the MultiBit software.
2. Have users create a wallet in MultiBit.
3. In the tools section on the left side, users can sign text and verify signatures.
4. Submit the text to https://proofofexistence.com/, and record the transaction id for lookup.
5. Sign the text, and record the signatures.
6. If the text + signatures + addresses used to sign + transaction id are posted publicly, anybody can verify that the text was committed to at some date, and that some users signed it.
- Project site is live, at: http://LawChain.org