Blockchain: The Basics

If we had a Bitcoin for every time we heard the word ‘blockchain’, we’d be (virtually) rolling in it.

Distributed Ledger Technology, or DLT, has taken the commercial world by storm—but what is it? And what legal issues might arise from a technology that is poised to completely revolutionise the way we transact with one another?

Blockchain

Blockchain Basics NetworksqTo keep it relatively simple, ‘blockchain’ refers to a list of records or transactions that are linked and secured in ‘blocks’. Each new piece of information is added to the end of the list (producing a continuously growing chain) in a way that is instantaneous, permanent and irreversible.

The information is stored on a ‘distributed ledger’, which means that it is shared across the entire network of participants, rather than in a centralised place managed by a single administrator. This method of storage ensures the quality and security of the data, as any update to the ledger requires the consensus of the majority of participants (or ‘nodes’). If consensus is reached, the latest, agreed-upon version is saved on every node, instantaneously and simultaneously.

As per the image on the left, each new ‘block’ of information is added to the chain of previous transactions, containing a unique encoded fingerprint, as well as the fingerprint of the previous block.

The benefits of this ever-growing chain are that each block is an accurate, instantaneous and ‘time-stamped’ record of a transaction. Since every participant in the network verifies a transaction, there is an immutable record that can’t be tampered with later on. Moreover, public blockchains (think Bitcoin) are easily and widely accessible to anyone with a computer.

Smart Contracts

For our purposes, one of the most interesting uses of blockchain technology is the ‘smart contract’. Although these contain a set of rules and consequences, just like a traditional contract, it consists of a set of coded instructions that self-perform when certain pre-set criteria are met. In other words, the contract executes itself. Like any blockchain, actions cannot be completed until validated by other participants in the network.

As an example of how smart contracts work in practice, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and Wells Fargo completed the first cross-border transaction between banks using blockchain technology in 2016. An Australian cotton-trader purchased a shipment of cotton from Texas on a blockchain platform. Ordinarily, this trade would have relied on an import letter of credit between banks to guarantee payment on arrival, which would have taken weeks. However, a smart contract embedded into the blockchain automatically triggered instantaneous payments when the cargo reached certain geographic locations.

Keeping the law on its toes

Whilst blockchain and smart contracts are exciting developments for the efficiency of commercial dealings, there may be some significant legal consequences. For example, the uptake of blockchain technology may pose new challenges for companies in complying with applicable data protection laws, with the distributed nature of blockchain making some kinds of data breaches harder to predict, detect and manage.

More fundamentally, however, the use of smart contracts sits somewhat uncomfortably with some well-established and highly subjective doctrines of contract law, posing novel challenges for lawyers and businesses alike.

Over the coming months, our blockchain article series will address some of the various legal implications and considerations arising from blockchain use. Although there are some complex challenges ahead, the use of blockchain technology presents some unique and exciting opportunities for businesses, which we will also explore in our upcoming articles.

If you’d like to discuss how distributed ledger technologies may impact your business, feel free to get in contact with Shaneel Parikh in our Business team.

Written by Shaneel Parikh Lawyer and Bryce Robinson.