IGF 2019 WS #352 Immutable Blockchains: Saviour or Menace?

Organizer 1: Grace Mutung'u, Kenya ICT Action Network
Organizer 2: Sarah Kiden, DigiWave Africa
Organizer 3: Alex Comninos, Research ICT Africa
Organizer 4: Arthur Gwagwa, Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law, Strathmore University Kenya
Organizer 5: RAYMOND OKWUDIRI ONUOHA, Lagos Business School, Pan-Atlantic University, Nigeria

Speaker 1: Roxana Bassi, Intergovernmental Organization, Intergovernmental Organization
Speaker 2: Vidushi Marda, Civil Society, Asia-Pacific Group
Speaker 3: Grigolia Elene, Government, Eastern European Group

Policy Question(s): 

Immutability refers to the irreversibility and permanence of information entered into blockchains. Immutable blockchains introduce important policy questions for data governance:

How can data governance adapt to the immutability of blockchains/distributed ledgers and tokens?

What are the social justice outcomes of immutable blockchains? Who benefits? Who loses? What are the potential harms of immutable blockchains?

How are arbitrary mistakes and unjust decisions reversed on immutable blockchains without undermining the basic trust-solving propositions of blockchains/distributive ledgers to begin with?

How will the introduction of blockchain and thus immutability affect electronic voting?

How can immutability help enable the SDGs (e.g. supply chain management in food health and pharmaceuticals?)

Are immutable blockchains compatible with data protection regulations and frameworks? If so how can they be adapted?

Relevance to Theme: One of the main value propositions of blockchains is that the information entered into blocks on the chains/ledgers is irreversible and cannot be changed (information on blockchains can be “immutable”).

One example comes from the Bitcoin token. When a bitcoin is stolen stolen, or the keys to access it are lost, it is gone forever. The immutability of the Bitcoin blockchain could lead to a scenario in which the life of assets, in the words of Thomas Hobbes is “nasty, brutish and short”, there is no artbiter when it comes to theft, other than the immutable bitcoin blockchain.

Blockchains can be updated, but what is written into blockchains cannot be changed. Immutability as a characteristic of of blockchain technology can therefore have significant social justice outcomes.

Immutability also has much positive potential, it can increase transparency, govern contracts so they are executed as intended, it can serve as a database for supply lines, pharmaceutical production, and land registries ensuring that there is transparency and no corruption.

Blockchains are expanding in application to currencies, investments, “smart contracts”, supply chain management, global health applications, land registries, transport, and a plethora of other applications.

With the potential of blockchains to immutably exclude or include people, blockchains, in combination with the contracts and algorithms that govern them, will have very important for implications for data governance. Existing data governance frameworks need to be adapted to cover blockchain technology, or perhaps new data governance frameworks are needed.

Relevance to Internet Governance: Proponents of blockchains point to their utility in areas of governance requiring trust, accountability, and often immutability. If the proliferation of blockchains and its applications continue, blockchain will be a technology (and set of users) involved in governance of many areas of society that require solving problems of trust. Blockchain may in the future be implemented and embedded in the ecosystem of different practices of internet governance. Immutability is thus a very important area of governance and regulation, as well as of internet governance.


Debate - Auditorium - 90 Min

Description: Panelists:
Roxana Bassi - The Association for Progressive Communications (Civil Society/Academic and Technical Community | Female | GRULAC)
Vidushi Marda - Article 19 (Civil Society | Female | Asia-Pacific)
Bitange Ndemo - Kenyan Blockchain and AI Task Force (Government | Latin America | Male)
Noémie Dié - Institute Louis Bachelier and London School of Economics (Academia and Technical Community | WEoG | Female)
Elene Grigolia - National Agency for Public Registries in Georgia (Government | Eastern Europe | Female)
Thomas Meyer - GIZ (Government | host country | Male)

The workshop will be a debate about the potential benefits and harms of blockchain-based immutability technologies. It will be a debate as there will be pro-blockchains people and blockchain-critical panelists. The debate will try to include the audience as much as possible.

- Step 1 (10 minutes): We will start off defining and unpacking immutability and its relevance by asking the panelists to do this in 1-2 minutes

- Step 2 (10 minutes) We will ask panelists to provide in 1-2 minutes examples of blockchain usage involving immutability that affects social inclusion or to project possible futures in which this may occur
- Step 3 (10 minutes) We will invite the audience to offer their own conceptualisations of blockchains or immutability or to provide their own examples of cases or their own scenarios.
- Step 4 (15 minutes) We will ask panelists to provide arguments for or against immutable blockchains

- Step 5 (10 minutes) We will invite audience responses. Specifically asking them to either: provide a short argument for or against immutable blockchains, or provide ideas as to best practices for implementing blockchains for inclusion.

- Step 6 (10 minutes) the panelists respond to the questions

- Step 7 (15 minutes) the panelists offer their best practices and final remarks

- Step 8 (10 minute) - This is left over time: here in case we end up being behind time. In this last 10 minutes we will open up the discussion and send it back to the audience

Parallel to the discussion, the audience will be invited to collaboratively edit three pads (pads.riseup.net):

- Immutability: pros and cons
- Examples of immutability
- Best practices
Regulatory and legal concerns and solutions

Expected Outcomes: We aim to:

A) Unpack and explain immutability

B) Unpack the relevance of immutability to inclusion and social justice

C) Unpack the harms possibly caused by immutable blockchains and unpack how this may contribute to or harm societal inclusion for different actors

D)Through the debate, establish positive inclusion-fostering applications and possibilities using blockchain

E) Establish potential harms caused by immutable blockchains
In light of D) and E) we aim to come up with best practices for the use and regulation of immutable blockchains for social inclusion

The outcome of the workshop will be a policy paper that, informed by the workshop (including contribution from panelists, audience participation, remote participation, and collaborative editing) outlines:
- examples of immutability,
- the concept of immutability,
- possible best practices,
- data governance concerns and possible solutions

We hope the collaborative documents will also be outcomes that reflects the audience and remote participants views on blockchain, immutability and data governance.

Onsite Moderator: 

Grace Mutung'u, Civil Society, African Group

Online Moderator: 

Alex Comninos, Civil Society, African Group


Sarah Kiden, Civil Society, African Group

Discussion Facilitation: 

There is a total of 30 minutes of audience participation, broken up into three rounds.

The audience also participates in the session and to the outcomes through the use of collaborative editing on online pads.

Parallel to the discussion, the audience, as well as remote participants will be invited to collaboratively edit three pads (pads.riseup.net). Twitter hashtags like #immutable blockchain will be used to encourage internet participation in the event.

Additionally, the pads will be opened two weeks before the IGF to inform the session.

Online Participation: 

We aim to use the online participation tool to solicit live textual or voice questions from the audience. We intend to dedicate 15 minutes of speaking time to remote participants. The online participation tool will also be complemented by our Twitter hashtag and the online collaborative pads.

Proposed Additional Tools: Parallel to the discussion, the audience, as well as remote participants will be invited to collaboratively edit three pads (pads.riseup.net). Twitter hashtags like #immutable blockchain will be used to encourage internet participation in the event.


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