In early September 2018 there was an announcement about the birth of the Australian National Blockchain (ANB). The purpose of this article is to consider: What it is? Whether it a good idea? Who is paying for it? And where to next?
When I started to research the ANB I had a number of questions which I thought I would knock off one by one, but at the end of my research, I am left with many more questions. But let me try to answer some.
What is the Australian National Blockchain?
We do not know much about it other than some press reports and a one page website, but the Australian National Blockchain (ANB) appears to be a Private Blockchain (also referred to as a permissioned blockchain) commissioned by the Digital Transformation Agency (DTA). We are advised that the ANB is an ‘Australian first initiative’ (not sure this is true check out this youtube explainer) and that it involves, Herbert Smith Freehills, Data61 and IBM. ‘This consortium aims to design and build the nation’s first large-scale, enterprise grade and industry-agnostic digital platform to enable Australian businesses to collaborate using the IBM Blockchain Platform and blockchain-based smart legal contracts.’
The distinction between a Private and Public Blockchain is very significant and there are some new concepts around the words ‘private’ and ‘public’ in the blockchain space. In brief and generally, Private means more centralisation, less transparency and less security, Public means less centralisation, more transparency and more security. Nomenclature is important, the ANB is a Private Blockchain open to the public, in a similar way that a private telephone company is open to the public. For a great explainer on why decentralisation matters here is a podcast recorded at the Oslo Freedom Forum in September of this year.
The reports advise us that the Government is spending $1bn with ‘IBM to build out this private platform and that it is the highest-value tech contract negotiated by the Australian government, and reflects the long-term anticipated value of the agreement.’
My concern is that there are many readily available public blockchains which can be used to try out all types of experiments and blockchain applications across industries and government. The cost of using such a blockchains and building applications is in the millions of dollars (actually hundreds of thousands), not billions. There is no publicly available information as to why or how the Government has decided (as it appears to have done) that a Private Blockchain is preferable to a Public Blockchain, there appears to have been no public or parliamentary debate about on this topic. But I may have missed it.
Is it a Good Idea?
In an earlier piece I have written about the forthcoming Blockchain Wars, in summary I put forward the idea that a Government controlled blockchain could become the ultimate big brother enabler and that the quality of freedom and liberty that future generations enjoy will be determined by the actions taken by Government (and big corporations protecting their business models) over the next few years.
In the context of my Blockchain Wars article, a Governmental led private blockchain project is a very bad idea and it is concerning to me how $1bn can be spent on such a project without (as far as I can see) a consideration of the social and aspects of the project. The project seems well intentioned and in keeping with the innovative theme of Australia’s development, yet I think they have missed a huge opportunity really take leadership and champion instead a Public Blockchain approach to government services. Not only is this a potential missed opportunity but, worse, it sets up future generations for a level of control that they may not enjoy, and was not intended.
So blockchain, yes it’s a good idea, but no it’s not a good idea for a Government supported private blockchain project.
Who’s Paying For It?
Well that’s easy, in every sense of the word, the Australian public are paying for it…the more probing question is, do they know what they are paying for and the consequences of it, and if not how can they best be informed and engaged in a discussion on this topic?
Should there be a Public Service = Public Blockchain movement? Of ‘if not (Public) why not?’, there will be some Govt services best maintained on a private chain….what’s the criteria for determining those services? Anyway there is a whole raft of discussion/research/engagement missing here.
Where to Next?
No one knows how blockchain technology will manifest itself in our society. For good reasons there are high hopes that it will help solve some of Humanity’s most pressing problems, but like so many high hopes before, it will not be a straight line to the promised land and we know for sure that we will not get there without challenge.
First up in that list of challenges is to educate ourselves on the significance of this technology and most importantly how it could be used to monitor, control and censor our lives. Next up is to educate others about this and advocate for open, decentralised and permissionless technologies that can enhance our freedoms.
Specific to the ANB, my next personal action is to find out all I can about it, I am waiting for responses to a number of queries I have made around funding, a copy of the IBM contract etc. I will do all I can to educate myself and advocate on this matter. Please join me.