Hanane Boujemi- blockchain and human rights

Removing the Middleman: Blockchain and Human Rights


We are interviewing experts from around the world for our podcast series on blockchain and human rights. It is an in-depth exploration of the potential uses of blockchain, the technology behind bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, to improve our enjoyment of human rights.

In this episode, we speak to Hanane Boujemi. She is a senior tech policy expert with more than a decade of experience in the economic and legal aspects of Internet Policy and Governance.

Blockchain can be a key element in limiting corruption in many countries, but we’re at the stage where we need to know how the concept will be applied in the practical sense. The next five years will be crucial for this technology to prove itself.

Boujemi is currently leading research on blockchain technologies addressing soft power management and accumulation within distributed governance. Her professional career includes positions as a senior policy analyst with various UN institutions including ITU, UNESCO and UNESCWA.

Listen to episode 1:

Can Blockchain Technology Improve Your Human Rights?

Read the full transcript of the Hanane Boujemi interview.

Gabriel Stein:

Hanane Boujemi, thank you so much for joining us today.

Hanane Boujemi:             Thank you.

Gabriel Stein:                     You are the co-chair of Internet Rights and Principles Coalition at the UN. Tell me a bit about your work, what you do, and why it makes a difference.

Hanane Boujemi:             The Global Coalition on Internet Rights and Principles works on promoting human rights and principles on the internets. It’s specific to the work of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, so that we do have members from all around the world who are working on promoting what we produce with a number of contributions from all around the world who have legal background, lawyers, legal students, and we agreed on publishing a booklet, which discusses in details from the legal perspective the internet rights and principles that we kind of should all abide by as a society. And as a summary of the booklet is the 10 principles that we’ve been promoting all around the world for the last nine to 10 years, and it has been actually the reference point to many legislators on how they can draft legislation specific to internet principles in their local contact, so the principles and the booklet have been used as a point of reference in Italy, in New Zealand, and it’s been referred to by many applications as a baseline of how human rights should be preserved or safeguarded online.

Gabriel Stein:                     But how does blockchain fit into that whole work-

Hanane Boujemi:             Yeah. Well, blockchain being more or less a new topic to the field does not really relate barically to my activities with the dynamic coalition on internet rights and principles, while I happen to be advising different organizations on the topic from the policy scope because of my experience, so I happen to be advising one of the new products that is block time based, and it’s called Boule, and it’s a company which promotes e-voting using blockchain technology.

I’m also on the advisory board of the blockchain special interest group of Internet Society. So Internet Society is a global organization promoting access to the internet of the global level. And they do have different chapters all around the world and special interest groups, so I happen to be sitting on the board of the group that is concerned with blockchain.

And why all this is happening is because I’m leading research at the moment, academic research, on governance structure of blockchain and also the policy, legally and regulatory challenges to blockchain deployment. There is an intersection between all these issues and blockchain, and I think you’ve probably heard how many startups are racing to produce ideas and see how can blockchain help different issues.

So yeah, this topic interests me personally and I’ve been doing research on it for the last year and a half. And maybe it’s a timely decision to focus on this topic, because it’s emerging, it’s upcoming, and there are a lot of issues, as I said earlier, that have to be tackled from different angles.

On defining blockchain:

Gabriel Stein:                     So let’s back up a bit. How do you explain blockchain to people when they’ve never heard it before and you’re trying to get the idea across to them?

Hanane Boujemi:             Yeah. Sounds like the key question, what is blockchain, because most people, when they hear “blockchain” maybe automatically they think of Bitcoin or maybe vice versa, and that’s recent. Up until very recently, there wasn’t lots of talking about blockchain. You mostly hear Bitcoin, but blockchain is the inherent technology based on which Bitcoin is operating.

I think the simple way … There is no simple way to explain this to a nontechnical person, but to the public, it would be a ledger where you can log in most of or all the transactions of any assets that you can think of. So we don’t focus only on money. So blockchain is the inherent technology that is used to store, transfer data or assets, and there is no way you can change that at any point of the future. So just to put it in simple language to the audience, that’s the essence of it.

Gabriel Stein:                     And I get the sense that when people say, “There’s no way to change it in the future,” that all of a sudden people stop in their tracks and they say, “Really? Is that really the case? What about all the hacking we hear about?”

Hanane Boujemi:             Yes. So, well, blockchain operates basing on specific core features, which make it blockchain. And the way it is programmed, it’s basing on a code, basically. Of course, hacking is happening, and we can see how many people are being threatened to release their Bitcoins or … It’s like a trend at the moment. The point is that you are able to store data in a transparent way, and you can’t change it, which means it’s not immutable. So any asset that is hacked, for example, you still cannot change it, ’cause hacking is just stealing. It’s like a thief. If they steal money, they can still use it to buy goods, but the value doesn’t change.

Gabriel Stein:                     Right. And so tell me, why going forward are you going to be working with blockchain and thinking about it more, and why is it important?

Hanane Boujemi:             I think as a concept, the core concept in my view, it’s very important, because it fits into what the internet lacks at the moment, ’cause the internet brought a lot of people together, it connected the world, but there are so many gaps that the internet cannot basically cover. So there are security issues, there are issues with safety, and basically with blockchain you might be able to transfer assets, information, anything in the virtual network without necessarily knowing the other party, and that puts a spin on all transactions as we know it today.

There is another concept that we have to maybe be more interested in, is how blockchain technology promotes decentralization as a concept, ’cause in my view, that is the added value of blockchain more than actually be it a platform where you cannot alter information or immutable. I mean, those core values are very important, but we have to look at the very specific concept of decentralization, looking at how the whole world now is engineered. There is always a need to have an authority in between to validate any kind of transfer of assets. And in my view, the distributive nature of how transactions are being … confound them on a blockchain and the decentralization concept, it’s a very important notion that we have to look at vis-a-vis the current systems in place.

So I am trying to speak here in a more holistic way, ’cause I don’t want to limit the discussion to talking about financial systems or land registries, for example, or any middleman as we know it. So we have to be able to think a little bit out of the box to get out from the centralized systems we have in place at the moment.

Gabriel Stein:                     We’re going to have to flesh that out a bit, because I’m trying to take the beginner’s mind here. So when we talk about the central authority, I mean, how does the technology take away the central authority?

Hanane Boujemi:             Well, if we speak, for example, about the role of banks and financial institutions and authenticating, authorizing, money transfers, for example, if you use a technology that could substitute the role of a bank, it might be worth it in the long term, because you will probably remove a key player in how global financial system is working at the moment. So to replace that with a technology might not be 100% a good thing in the short term, but if we think of it as an overall strategy for the future, it could be viable. And viable in a sense is that you would avoid having a centralized authority to decide on transactions and to decide on the value of money and so on. So you might be looking at a unified global financial system at any point in time in the future.

And that applies on everything else. It applies on … It will omit probably the role of, for example, if you want to buy/sell a land, for example, you need to make sure that the land is registered and the land registry place, a key role in maintaining information in the recent history. But in so many countries around the world, a land register, for example, does not exist, so it’s very hard to prove ownership of things, be it a land, be it a house. If you have a letter which includes all the transactions and verifies everything, you might be looking into omitting the role of land registry.

So I am that enthusiastic about this technology to state that, but practically, it might not happen. It might be just helping the land registry people to do their job better, which is good, because then it will solve other issues. I mean, we have to think in the context of different countries, ’cause in the UK, where I’m based, or in Sweden, for example, the procedures are much more advanced. But if we think about developing a country context, having a land registry, for example, a physical one that is relying on public sector and so on, you have a lot of risks from corruption to the possibility to diverting property to other people. There’s a lot of risk.

So I think having some kind of technology that will help us make sure there is a level of accountability, it could help. It could help in different context. So I believe, I mean, the technology or the plan of blockchain sounds great for a lot of use cases, and it has to be applied according to the context where it’s deployed. So it could serve for different reasons in different contexts, in my view.

Gabriel Stein:                     When there’s no central authority, though, I’m just going to play devil’s advocate here, so who regulates?

Hanane Boujemi:             Yeah. So I mean, the regulation, the discussion about regulation, when we have innovative solutions, is probably a buzz killer. So when you have a technology that has a potential, we still don’t know yet whether blockchain technology can really do what it says it will do. Regulation would be the first thing to think of, because investors, traditional institutions, they want to have a stable regulatory system before investing in anything or before thinking of doing anything in an economy.

But when we’re talking about technology, I believe we should have guide points of how regulation works and how it applies to the existing technologies that we’re using nowadays. And the closest thing I can think of now is the internet. Same thing happened with the internets. When it was deployed initially, it was just a research tool that was used for military purposes in the ’60s, but as the whole internet evolved, it became basically the tool that we all use to do everything.

Then regulators, they were caught off guard, because everything that we know, we do, was offline. Now the online world altered the perception about a lot of exchanges that we’re having as human beings. And the regulator is equally challenged by the fact that most of the exchanges we have off of the internet cannot be regulated by offline law. So we’re having similar discussion.

And at the moment, I think it’s too early to speak of regulating something that you don’t know exactly what it will do in the future, and this is the hard thing. It’s very easy to apply regulation on cases that involves human rights, for example, breaches and you know what everybody did, but it’s very difficult to apply regulation on software that you actually don’t know exactly what it will do in the future. It’s very challenging to envision any kind of laws that will actually regulate blockchain at this point. But you can use the law as a guide point to predict certain challenges, and that’s what I’ve written about.

So there are already certain policy challenges that we have to look at that blockchain technology promotes, but it will pose some kind of difficulty in terms of protecting certain rights, for example. I mean, I know that you want to talk about this maybe later on about how a blockchain can be linked to human rights at some point.

Blockchain and voting:

Gabriel Stein:                     Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned before that you’re connected with a voting blockchain startup?

Hanane Boujemi:             Yeah.

Gabriel Stein:                     Can we talk about that a bit?

Hanane Boujemi:             Yeah. So this product is basically trying to do exactly what I was talking about, like voting maybe straightforward in the UK or in different countries, but in other contexts, it’s very difficult to get a genuine vote and make sure that everything is in place for a democratic setup, basically. So the point is to deploy the technology that will allow people to vote online, ensuring, obviously, that it’s transparent, that there is no fiddling with it, and so on. The product is not yet ready, so it’s following the same process of all the startups at the moment using blockchain. It’s based on Etherium. I’m not sure if you know or you’ve heard of Etherium. It’s a platform that allows you to build your own smart contracts using blockchain.

On Smart Contracts:

Gabriel Stein:                     Can I just ask you, what’s a smart contract?

Hanane Boujemi:             Okay. Well, a smart contract is not the opposite of dumb contract. It’s not that. It’s just that if you’ve heard of blockchain you’ve probably heard of Bitcoin and Etherium. So Bitcoin is, let’s say maybe that the most famous cryptocurrency in the world now, and Etherium is the second biggest blockchain that exists after Bitcoin.

So Etherium is using what we call this platform that is used in smart contracts and that you can use yourself to develop any product that you want. So the code is there and you can build on it to develop your own product that is meant to be a smart contract. It has different criteria. It has different core features that are obviously linked to blockchain as a technology. I’m not sure to what extent you want me to explain the core features of blockchain, because it’s quite technical.

But the good thing about Etherium is that you can actually … It’s like a layer. It’s a layer that you can use to build your own application. So simply, if you have any idea that you want to apply at the moment and you want to use blockchain to code it, you can use Etherium as an application layer to do it.

And what a lot of companies are doing now, I’m sure you’ve heard of the ICU craze, which is the initial coin offering, so all those companies … I mean, most of them, the majority, I think, are using Etherium as a platform to build their own applications.

Gabriel Stein:                     blockchain, like you said before, is a shared ledger? You have these computers all around the world. So the nodes are all around the world and when something is entered into the shared ledger, it produces a mathematical equation that all of these nodes need to solve?

Hanane Boujemi:             Something like that, yes. Not exactly. It depends. If you’re talking about a public blockchain, that is the case, ’cause mind you, now there are a lot of companies like Kodak, I’m sure you heard of that case, as well, that developing their own private blockchain?

Gabriel Stein:                     Yes.

Hanane Boujemi:             So if you’re dealing in public blockchain, yes.

Gabriel Stein:                     Okay.

Hanane Boujemi:             That’s the way it works, yeah.

Gabriel Stein:                     So in the public blockchain they solve the mathematical equation, and that’s something that happens … That’s where the crypto aspect comes in; is that right?

Hanane Boujemi:             Well, the crypto aspect is always there, so the whole point about these nodes competing to solve the cryptographic algorithm so they can actually … That’s the mining process. So in Bitcoin, if you want to be the selected node to win a Bitcoin … ’cause there are two aspects to it. You can either buy it, you can go to any exchange and buy a Bitcoin, or you can start mining it. It just takes a long time, and you need to have a powerful computer and a lot of money to spend on electricity.

So the point where your computer actually manages to solve the equation, then you kind of earn or win the Bitcoin. I might not be the best person to explain this, but I’m just trying to explain how I understand it myself.

Gabriel Stein:                     Okay. Once the mathematical equation is solved by the majority of the nodes, then that transaction is officially set in stone in the shared ledger; it can never be changed?

Hanane Boujemi:             No. Actually, the role of the other nodes is that they try to verifying with you the transaction if it’s correct or not. It’s just a double check. So the process that you were describing to solve the mathematic or the algorithm formula, if you want to say it, that is to mind, but for the block to be added to the ledger, it has to be verified by all the mass that’s participating in the network.

Gabriel Stein:                     So the first node that solves the equation, then you have all of the other nodes who verify that?

Trust impasse in blockchain:

Hanane Boujemi:             That is right, yes. So what you want, I think you’re trying to get into the process of mining, at Bitcoin. That’s the process that you may be referring to. So if you want to start any blockchain, you need to have a genesis block. So that is the start point. And then what you need have, you need to build trust in that transaction to get people to approve it for you so it has some kind of credibility. And that’s the trust impasse in blockchain in my view, because the value of whatever asset you have does not hold a value because you say so, but because the network actually approves it for you.

So as a node, you start a transaction, and then you want other people to feed into it so it builds credibility in the network, ’cause anybody can start a transaction, but the point is, who is going to join you into approving the letter so it gets the level of credibility needed by network. So it becomes like the real thing. You want people to buy into whatever you’re having.

So if you’re mining Bitcoin, you’re competing with a lot of nodes, and your computer and your power is competing with a lot of other people, ’cause you want to reward, you want to reward as somebody who generally try to contribute into mining this cryptocurrency. So the reward would be winning a Bitcoin, but only if, there is a lot of ifs and buts, only if you are the one who first managed to resolve this cryptographic formula.

Gabriel Stein:                     But the blockchain always has a cryptographic formula?

Hanane Boujemi:             Yes, yes, yes. So I mean, I think all the transactions basically are based on more cryptography, and as is the point, the point that blockchains are secure is because they use cryptography. So the transactions are visible in the ledger, which means there is transparency, but there is a notion of anonymity to it. So you really don’t know who is behind a transaction.

There is a way to know, but visibly when you check the ledger, that’s part of being … maybe one of the core feature is that blockchain is transparent, so you can check all of the transactions that are being filed, but you can’t really know who is behind them.

Gabriel Stein:                     Last question on this front. So when we say blockchain, you mentioned public blockchain.

On Public Blockchain:

Hanane Boujemi:             Okay. Well, a public blockchain would be something like Etherium or Bitcoin, okay? A private blockchain would be a specific blockchain that is developed by a specific company. So for example, Kodak, they decided to have their own cryptocurrency, but they also launched their own blockchain platform. So that is called a private blockchain. I think a lot of companies will try to have their own private service that can be built on their own blockchain.

Gabriel Stein:                     Okay. But when we talk about making transactions, it’s not like there’s one blockchain where different transactions for currency, different transactions for land rights, different transactions for dating? They’re all on this big blockchain. They’re separate blockchains?

Hanane Boujemi:             Yeah, no, they would be separate blockchains, obviously, yes.

Gabriel Stein:                     And for each one of those there’ll be separate infrastructures and separate nodes and separate miners; is that right?

Hanane Boujemi:             Absolutely, yes. Absolutely. Yeah, well, I think the notion of mining is maybe not rele- … in my view, at least, in my personal view, the notion of mining is not relevant to private blockchains, because the way you will look at this is that you want to deploy a private blockchain, ’cause you want to increase your efficiency as a company or as an institution. For example, the technology’s already been explored by banks, for example, so if a specific bank decides to launch its own blockchain, it has to be private. It’s not going to be meaning you have to mine currency. I don’t think so. ‘Cause you know what? Every country can just print money. They don’t need to create it. They just need to print it.

So the economic model of having a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is completely different from the notion of money as we know it. So the mining process will be only specific in my view to Bitcoin, ’cause you really have to mine it to create it.

Gabriel Stein:                     We really went deep there, but I think we had to a little bit.

Hanane Boujemi:             Well, I think you wanted to understand basically the details, the nitty gritty details of blockchain, but the starting point, for me, at least, to have a discussion about those kind of details, is to read a lot about the core features, ’cause it’s not something that can be actually covered in an answer of a question. And it can also get complicated. This is something that I came across myself when I was researching the topic. It’s extremely difficult to find a preset definition, which will literally explain blockchain to you, ’cause you end up bumping into a lot of information. It becomes very confusing.

And I see how it can be really confusing to think of blockchain as this huge pool of transactions where everything mixes, but it’s not the case.

Gabriel Stein:                     No. That would be too easy.

Hanane Boujemi:             Yeah, that would be too easy. So we like to think of blockchain as a concept, and that’s why when we discuss it now, we discuss it more or less as a idea. But it doesn’t mean there is one size to fit all. It can’t really function in that way. And we can’t have a blanket policy, either, to cover all the products that are powered by this technology.

And that’s why I personally, as I said earlier, see the value more in the concept of decentralization, how are we going to look at it, what are the legal challenges, what are the regulatory challenges, how are we going to apply it in reality, ’cause mind you, at the moment, there is a lot of hype about blockchain.

But there’s very little proof that it’s going to work, which means most of the ideas that we have there are still in the stage of proof of concept, and we really don’t know yet whether it’s going to be practical if we’re going to deploy at a larger scale.

Gabriel Stein:                     Right.

Hanane Boujemi:             So the promise is to do something, but we still really don’t know whether it’s going to work or not.

Gabriel Stein:                     So early days?

Hanane Boujemi:             It is very early, indeed, and as I said, it’s very difficult to just summarize everything and say, “Okay, from this question I can get an answer that will clarify everything,” ’cause, no, you’re going to end up diving into another section of the whole topic.

Gabriel Stein:                     Clearly I have to do more homework, and maybe our listeners can, also.

Hanane Boujemi:             No, it is very fascinating, actually. I think, as I said, the whole notion of, for example Bitcoin, is very intriguing for a lot of people, ’cause they don’t know really how it works, so it’s very important to understand that. And I think to target a wide audience about this topic, it needs to be more simplified in a story or something like that. And I think BBC had actually a very good program about this, if I remember well. If I find a idea, I’ll send it to you to explain in simple terms how the whole mining operation works.

Blockchain and Human Rights:

Gabriel Stein:                     Great, thanks. Let’s do one more question, and then we’ll wrap it up. So going forward, what do you think we’re going to be looking at and dealing with in the next, say, five years, when it comes to these issues, and what applications do you think are really going to start to make a difference when it comes to the field of human rights, sooner than later?

Hanane Boujemi:             I think the prospect for the next five years is for the technology to prove itself, that there’s something that is a lot of hype about blockchain, and I think there is a need for the people behind the technology to prove that it’s going to work for everybody. In terms of products, there are very good ideas around that. It’s just to what extent they will be applicable. So I’m a little bit skeptical about the scalability of certain products, but also, there are products that I don’t think should be that, because they jeopardize human rights or they don’t consider a lot of maybe repercussions that they can cause.

I’m not sure if you heard of an application to actually record the IDs of minority groups. I think that would be definitely something that will require a lot of maybe legal expertise to do, because the risk of including IDs of people in a letter simply infringes on many rights as we know them, especially privacy.

There are issues like that we can’t overcome just by deploying Blockchain, so namely political conflicts like the Rohania groups, where actually there was an idea to actually put all the people on a ladder, and I think that will be really disturbing, it would be disturbing if we decide to do something like that, because that will make actually these people an easy target. At the moment they’re in the phase of extermination, and I don’t think we need to put them all on ledger to trace them. It’s just wrong in my view.

I think blockchain would be definitely useful, as I said earlier, to try as much as possible to remove the middleman in specific context. It will probably be one of the most interesting technical developments, ’cause in developing countries, where the level of corruption is very high, it can play a key role in mitigating corruption in many counties.

So to have that positive outlook, it’s great, but then, we are at the stage now where we really need to know how the concept of blockchain will be applied in a practical sense. At the moment, unfortunately, there are a lot of ideas out there, and as I said, there are a lot of proof of concepts, but we still don’t know whether these ideas would be applicable in reality.

So the next five years would be maybe kind of … It’s a crucial phase where this technology needs to prove itself, in my personal opinion.

Gabriel Stein:                     For the next five years, we’ll connect with you once a year and find out where the developments have led so you can walk us through the stages here. Does that sound okay?

Hanane Boujemi:             Absolutely. Well, I hope I was helpful and useful in explaining maybe or clarifying certain questions that you had. Maybe I wasn’t the best person to give an overview on a lot of technical concepts. But I’ll be happy to contribute to your podcast in the future, and I think it’s a really great start to what it could be, the next best thing, so thank you very much for the time.

Gabriel Stein:                     Thank you for taking the time.

Hanane Boujemi:             Thank you.