Blockchain technology has increasingly become common and popular because it allows for scalable, inexpensive, and secure data management. It also enables users to develop smart contracts which can substitute traditional agreements. While blockchain was first developed in 1991, its development has provided it with the capacity to digitalize a whole government. One of the major definitions of blockchain is that it is “a system in which a record of transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency is maintained across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network.” Currently, it is deployed as a digital ledger for processing, verifying, and storing transactions on computers globally. Because it cannot be interrupted or modified, a blockchain’s security is significantly improved and no one can interrupt a transaction. Blockchain technology has been advanced as a solution to various human rights challenges, including voting access, land rights protection, as well as supply chain traceability. The technology offers new opportunities for addressing human rights challenges, but users should ensure the projects do not aggravate underlying risk factors. The core focus of this paper is to illuminate the core concepts of blockchain technology, its advantages and disadvantages, its impact on freedom of expression, Internet freedom, right to privacy, the democratization process, and how it can contribute to transparency and accountability.
2.0 Concepts and Background
Its invention can be traced to Scott Stornetta and Stuart Haber in 1991 when they used various technologies for developing the first blockchain. The Merkle tree is one of the technologies used and is a data structure deployed for the verification of individual records. In 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto, a renowned developer, eventually published his first blockchain whitepaper. In 2009, he successfully mined the first block which actualized the blockchain concept.
Blocks, miners, and nodes are the three major concepts to understand blockchain. For blocks, a ledger can be viewed as a book where the recording of transactions occurs. Various data blocks create a chain, thus the “blockchain” name. Blocks possess all unvalidated transaction data that network users create. In addition, all information that blocks store is cryptographically encrypted. Some of the information in a block are nonce, hash, and transactions. Miners create blocks using sophisticated software meant for solving complex math problems. On the other hand, nodes (high-spec laptops, servers, or computers) are used for maintaining the blockchain’s copies. They regularly exchange information and through storage and preservation of data in a blockchain, they can be perceived as the framework for a whole blockchain.
3.0 Advantages of Blockchain Technology
3.1 Digital Security and Privacy
A decentralized blockchain provides digital security and privacy to users. Conceptually, blockchain is a trustless/permissionless environment that discourages discrimination against its users. Data sharing including timestamps and sensor data can also be carried out in real-time without any form of transformation, manipulation, or access of data by a third party. By not having to depend on one source of truth, the network is considered as being safe from limited resources, corruption, and systemic failures. Because all users have a similar distributed ledger copy, transactions can be comprehensively analyzed prior to, during, and after validation of blocks. Its advantage is that as the number of miners and nodes rises, it results in better security of the whole protocol.
3.2 Cost Reduction
Numerous organizations reported that after they implemented a blockchain-based solution, they reduced the number of paid hours. Technology like smart contracts on blockchain has aided in the creation of foolproof agreements. Ideally, smart contract agreements tend to be quite effective since there is no room for disagreements and mishaps. Thus, this results in easy resolution of disputes as there is no need to make payments for legal advice if there is a contractual dispute. When institutions save costs, customers also benefit as the lower cost is directly transferred.
3.3 Complete Traceability
Every blockchain network has a trail with information on changes in ownership of a given asset. In other words, the data users share on a blockchain can be checked by any user. This is quite beneficial in a supply chain where a vendor may need proof from a client that a transaction was sent to the blockchain network. In case a package is being shipped overseas, a blockchain can share its current location in order for users to track its delivery. All parties involved can trace transactions and deter fraud from happening. This information can be used by service providers to find weaknesses in their supply chain and take proactive steps to ensure that transactions are foolproof.
4.0 Impact of Blockchain on Freedom of Expression
4.1 Freedom of Expression Concerns
Numerous businesses and governments currently utilize censorship software for monitoring individuals’ online activity and forbid access to different types of content. A Freedom House report established that in 2017, Internet freedom declined for the seventh consecutive year with as many as 67% of web users grappling with state censorship. Luckily, the technology that can enable people to navigate these restrictions, ensure oppressive regimes are accountable, and communicate securely is blockchain. Since a blockchain record is universal, it is described as immutable, implying it cannot be changed by a malicious third party, irrespective of their offline influence or power. Whereas blockchains are often utilized for recording currency transactions, the many recordkeepers who underpin the network offer an innovative way for shepherding messages, avoiding surveillance or censorship.
4.2 Blockchain and Censorship
One of the ways blockchain can promote free speech is by adopting cryptocurrency, which is infinitely less vulnerable to government interference. In case a government blacklists one’s financial transactions due to their political stance, cryptocurrencies can enable the affected persons to continue storing their wealth in another financial system. From a theoretical point of view, after crypto adoption becomes ubiquitous, governments cannot threaten financial exclusion or wealth control. Blockchain also offers people the capacity of airing grievances on a robust platform without fearing that they will be censored. A third party cannot tamper with a blockchain, and erasing publicly expressed ideas is difficult. The government of China learned this the hard way in early 2018. Chinese activists started publishing #MeToo blog posts, but the government deleted them. Activists then relied on the Ethereum blockchain, a popular blockchain platform, which deploys the Ether cryptocurrency. By sending small Ether amounts and attaching their “written memos to their transactions,” they permanently imprinted their stories on a ledger managed globally, easily viewable with various block explorers’ websites that display blockchain transaction details, including Etherscan.
4.3 Blockchains as Decentralized Networks
Finally, blockchain gets rid of the remaining points of failure that often plague encrypted messaging networks. Until recently, all remote and commercial communication needed, to various levels, the deployment of not only trusted but also highly centralized third parties, including cloud services or Internet service providers. Governments and corporations have utilized these vulnerabilities to their benefit and cracked down on secure messaging applications such as Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp that depend on cloud services. Using a decentralized network for sending messages, it becomes harder for malicious attacks to penetrate, while private messages cannot be unencrypted, and scraping metadata also becomes harder. It implies that any “Great Firewall” can be brought down by blockchain. Its development implies that we can ignore oppressive policies that constrain the free press and speech. Being able to speak freely and report without punishment is a potential that can be extended by blockchain technology.
5.0 Impact of Blockchain on the Right to Privacy
5.1 Right to Privacy as a Human Right
The right to privacy is a fundamental human right globally. Such privacy can extend to the right of an individual to have control over their personal data. It should be carefully defended as management and ownership of personal data can affect relationships with others as well as the identity of data-owners. One of the crucial advantages of blockchain solutions is that they allow corporations to share data in a new way, open up possibilities for more collaboration, enhanced operational efficiencies as well as expanded revenue.
5.2 DIDs and Data Control
Decentralized identity (DID) is one of the key elements of blockchain technology. Self-sovereign identity, a common opinion by blockchain proponents, argues that people should be able to control their identities and have autonomy over the way identity facets are shared. DID is a self-sovereign identity that can significantly enhance the security and privacy of individual data. DID is defined as “individual ownership of personal digital data relating to many elements of identity.” Returning data ownership to the persons to whom the data belongs can be beneficial for both individuals and organizations that would otherwise have to protect the data. DID is enabled by blockchain technology and offers individuals a way of storing their data outside their parties’ databases with whom they transact. These individuals own and control the data, and metadata can be stored on the blockchain and utilized for verifying the validity of arguments made by users regarding their data. Contrary to an email account, the DID is owned and stored by an individual instead of the email service provider. The owner also secures the password or private key. Figure 1 demonstrates the way a user of various services and websites can store data in a central location controlled by the user and interact with service providers separately. This ensures that the user control information that each provider can see.
Figure 1: Decentralized Service Providers and Identities
5.3 DIDs and Privacy
Furthermore, DIDs can be instrumental in enabling users to not only control and secure their data but also determine who can access this data. As people interact with various internet services or platforms using decentralized federated identities, blockchains can enhance their security. They also allow entities to safeguard people’s privacy, which is central and critical to self-sovereign identity. Using smart contracts can ensure the safeguarding of identity management in a system. The federated identity frameworks based on blockchains also offer network business entities with the capacity of monitoring the way their services are being utilized, thus allowing for process enhancement and a better overall user experience. Similarly, zero-knowledge proofs, defined as “cryptographic methods whereby a user or “prover” can convince someone or a “verifier” that something about them is true without providing, revealing, or sharing that information,” enhance ease of access to identity and critical data while safeguarding privacy as well as property control for individuals. Zero-knowledge proofs are influential tools used for the maintenance of privacy for people who may require to provide some personal information, but no more than absolutely required.
6.0 Impact of Blockchain on a decentralized and free (from freedom) internet
6.1 Centralization vs Decentralization
Freedom of the Internet is a raging topic in cybersecurity debates. In today’s Age of Information, various authorities and agencies have been trying to have complete control over the Internet. ‘Decentralization’ is a frequently brought-up element of internet freedom and refers to an idealistic version of the Internet without centralized servers. Considering the decentralization concept, various cybersecurity researchers and specialists have illuminated blockchain technology, particularly the influential role it plays in decentralizing data flow on the web. Why is the decentralization of the Internet important? Centralization is defined as “a couple of entities ‘owning’ the internet, which leads to a power dynamic between smaller and large tech companies, in which the dice almost always rolls in favor of the larger fish in the pond.” A network’s centralization is defined as “the way its points are linked to each other, and how one can reach a point starting from another.” Contrary to the decentralization concept, centralization is a totalitarian rule over the Internet whereas decentralization embraces a democratic approach. A Freedom House Report states that freedom on the Internet continues to decline. The same report criticizes China as the worst internet freedom abuser for a fourth consecutive year. In addition, the report’s findings depicted a bleak internet freedom future since out of 65 countries surveyed, 33 had witnessed a decline in Internet freedom whereas 16 had witnessed a rise. Considering these statistics’ dire implications, a decentralized internet becomes important. Also, the internet’s centralization leaves so much room for manipulating data by those in the hierarchy, together with many loopholes that cybercriminals can exploit to access sensitive data. Decentralization is critical to protect against these hackers who usually steal databases that aggregate people’s information used by bad actors for opening financial accounts through stolen identities. Therefore, how can blockchain help in decentralizing the Internet?
6.2 Blockchain and Decentralization of the Internet
Decentralization means free or freedom of the internet. Free Internet for us means security and privacy, access to information, Internet neutrality, free communication with others, freedom of expression, and innovations as well as a constant evolution. Blockchain technology can be instrumental because it uses a peer-to-peer network protocol where data is stored across various nodes or computers. However, today, the only popular application of blockchain is its use in cryptocurrency where it authorizes transactions through a token or native coin. Similarly, blockchain technology can be deployed for decentralizing the web. Taking into account that one of the major challenges of the centralized internet is the tediousness of data management, HostScore identified that the issue is going to become more complex due to the projected growth of the web hosting market by about 13.25% by 2025. However, the analysis does not necessarily mean that blockchain is not beneficial in the decentralization of the Internet, and it is only imperative that alternatives founded on the technology are used. Practical approaches to its integration are dependent on a ledger-leaning storage and retrieval system and shifting the storage of data to network backbones through cryptographic ledgers. The two alternatives are founded on a cryptographic ledger. Thus, they significantly relieve central servers of their storage. Migration to a network backbone through a cryptographic ledger can be ideal for small businesses. This is particularly because a network backbone aids in upgrading upload and download speeds while providing a greater degree of security needed. For the larger enterprises, cryptographic ledgers and retrieval are proposed to store data with secure, identity authorization tokens that facilitate safe transactions and transmission of data in organizations.
Figure 2: Blockchain Decentralization
As shown in Figure 2 above, blockchain allows trust sharing across connecting networks. It is able to achieve this due to its components shown in Figure 2. In a nutshell, blockchain technology has a lot of untapped potential in decentralizing the Internet.
7.0 Blockchain and the Democratization Process
Blockchain provides various qualities, specifically related to permanent and tamper-evident databases and record-keeping that can aid in tackling government corruption. Since the economic crisis, the surge in social media use, and the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a surging demand for transparency and participation in the democratic process. However, bureaucratic inefficiency deters governments from attaining transparency, whereas civic participation continues to shift to new digitalized and globalized spheres.
Blockchain can enhance traceability by providing a way of easily tracking any form of transaction in order to empower consumers and citizens. For example, it can be deployed for designing an automated system whereby citizens would ably trace where taxes are spent and the public services they contribute to. Products can also be labeled with easily accessible and reliable information about employment conditions, country of origin, production standards, and environmental impact. People can also be able to track the money they donate to charities. The greatest impact of blockchain will likely be through disintermediation. As an immutable and decentralized ledger, blockchain technology enables users to register transactions without the need for third-party verification, thus saving money and time within the process. Because transactions that need a trusted party’s authentication, whether a bank, international court, electoral authority, or lawyer, can be registered independently in blockchain, it will significantly affect economies’ tertiary sectors.
7.2 Public Procurement and Bureaucracy
Government contracting is the largest marketplace for government expenditure and the main source of official corruption globally. A plethora of factors makes this process an avenue of corruption in all countries. The opaqueness and complexity of vendor selection processes entail a high level of human discretion. Such vulnerabilities result in significant financial waste, distort market prices, minimize healthy competition, and often lead to ineffective services and substandard goods. A process based on blockchain can directly tackle corruption-risk factors related to procurement by enhancing third-party oversight of tamper-evident transactions, and facilitating more uniformity and objectivity through automated smart contracts, hence promoting the accountability and transparency of actors and transactions.
Blockchain-based identity can get rid of many of the identification procedures for governments, while significantly reducing administrative procedures for people. For instance, Estonia was the first nation to roll out a blockchain-based system in this way, and there are foreseen similar national and regional applications during the next 10 years. Since the cyber-attacks of Russia on Estonia in 2007, the country has become a leading lab for new e-government experimentation and technologies. In subsequent years, the former Soviet republic has digitized the whole judicial, security, health, and commercial code systems through blockchain technology.
Rising concerns over voter registration integrity, election security, voter turnout, and poll accessibility have made governments consider voting platforms based on blockchains as a way of increasing trust, faith, and participation in important democratic processes. Blockchain can enhance security and efficiency for electoral purposes. For instance, in March 2018, it was deployed during the Sierra Leone national election, offering a technique for transmission of electronic results that were foolproof and not hackable. In addition, West Virginia became the first US state in 2018 to use a mobile voting app, allowing close to 144 international voters to ably record their ballots anonymously using blockchain. Blockchain specifically helps through its transparent, decentralized, encrypted, and immutable qualities that optimize poll accessibility and reduce election tampering.
7.4 Tackling Corruption
7.4.1 Land Title Registries
A plethora of governments have commenced experimenting with blockchain-founded registries. Some of the initiatives, such as those within Sweden, are influenced by the desire to enhance efficiency. Others, such as the ones in India and Honduras, seek to instill and expand property rights and enhance transparency within a process susceptible to corrupt practices. Blockchain land registries can offer a decentralized, secure, immutable, and publicly verifiable record system for enabling individuals to prove their land rights. Such qualities minimize the chance for self-interested manipulation of land rights and generally increase land ownership resilience.
7.4.2 Corporate Ownership Registries
Recent corruption scandals have raised concerns globally regarding undisclosed or opaque beneficial corporate ownership. It is worth noting that secretly operated companies can be easily utilized for laundering money, paying bribes, or swaying governmental investment. Blockchain can help through the development of central registries for beneficial corporate ownership to better track criminal activity and conflicts of interest. Such broadly accessible and tamper-evident blockchain-based registries can offer the needed disclosure and transparency.
7.4.3 Grant Disbursements
Numerous governments disburse millions of dollars for supporting arts, social assistance, education, and humanitarian aid. This process is often opaque, convoluted, as well as inefficient, thus leading to loss of money to middlemen and banking fees, and paves way for potential corrupt diversions. Blockchains can assist by building public trust within such systems. The capacity to disintermediate and minimize the number of actors taking part in grant management, disbursements, and awards can streamline the process, minimize costs, and reduce chances for illicit financial siphoning.
7.5 Data Democratization
Blockchain has the potential for improving accountability and transparency across various use cases. Designed to not only secure but also validate information on the open Internet, these technologies can play a critical role in the modernization of the most crucial political institutions for the twenty-first century. People in the public sector working on human rights, democracy, government services, and citizen engagement should be interested in blockchain due to its immutability. They can host unalterable, permanent records that can enhance accountability and transparency between civil society, citizens, and government. Whereas laudable caution within the public sector over blockchain technology’s novelty has constrained widespread use to date, the pieces are currently in place for blockchain technology to play a crucial role in reimagining civil society and government. Data democratization has historically had positive benefits for open government.
8.0 How can blockchain contribute to transparency and accountability
Global trends indicate that there is a general decline in institutional accountability. Two 2017 reports suggest that many nations have made little or no progress towards ending corruption, while global confidence in private and public institutions dropped significantly. As ethics abuses are unaddressed, a vicious cycle develops as the ones in power see peers acting with impunity and becoming opportunistic themselves. This integrity decay leads to socioeconomic disparities widening and embedding dysfunctions into systems. Notably, blockchain technology can aid in fostering accountability and cooperation with global institutions through mechanisms that reintroduce traceability and transparency into human governance. Anyone who has a computer is able to see the full record of a public blockchain, thus making it near-impossible to hide transactions and quite easy for the third parties to not only track data entries, but also keep blockchain honest. Blockchain technology ensures that there is no catfishing. Public key encryption allows one to know who they are doing business with. Provided private keys remain private, it is not easy to fake a blockchain identity. Blockchains ensure secure permanence and sequence. One can only add transactions to the end of a blockchain, and after they are there, deleting or editing them is impossible. Timestamped, immutable entries minimize the chances of outdated or inaccurate data while preserving a blockchain’s integrity.
In conclusion, blockchain technology provides numerous opportunities for advancing human rights, democratization, enhancing accountability and transparency, and advancing Internet freedom. A supply chain recognizing all entities and paying accordingly boosts people’s rights globally. The use of blockchain to promote human rights causes is not altruistic. It is basically good business, and supporting human rights is a positive reflection on businesses. In democratization, they can play a role due to traceability, ability to help in public procurement, tackling corruption, and democratizing data. It can also enhance the protection of rights such as the freedom of expression, right to privacy, and decentralization of the Internet. The opportunities it presents through permanent and tamper-evident databases can improve citizen engagement, accountability, and transparency.