How blockchain could change the web

The internet is entering a new era for privacy and authentication. But what could this mean for the applications we create?

Those who have been in the industry for a while will recall the initial excitement around ‘Web 2.0’.

In a nutshell, Web 2.0 was a movement that came to prominence in the late 00’s. It referred to a series of technologies and approaches, all sharing a central philosophy that the internet wasn’t just a one-way channel for brands to speak to consumers. Instead, it posed that the web could be an ecosystem of connected devices and applications.

By encouraging user generated content, brands also could provide more personalised experiences. This thinking led to the rise of social media and more ‘app-like’ products. It also allowed brands to build services that span across multiple platforms and devices.

Think about platforms like Google, Amazon and Facebook. They’re more than just websites. They permeate the fabric of our lives. They’re on our phones, our TVs, even the smart-speakers in our kitchens.

Web 2.0 was also characterised by a gold rush mentality surrounding user data. Tech titans like Amazon trade on the ‘information economy’. The potential to monetise our personal information and habits are the driving factor of their businesses. After all, it’s said that Google knows more about you than your closest family.

It goes without saying that in the current digital landscape, user data is an extremely valuable commodity.

Taking back our privacy

Although Web 2.0 provided incredible opportunities, these also came at a cost. The cost of consumer privacy.

All of the information relating to a person’s interactions with an online service are stored with the service provider. Every bit of data an organisation has about you is stored on their own servers. As companies learn more about us, and store more of our data, fears over privacy and how they plan to use that information grow.

Organisations can argue that this is all set out clearly in the website’s terms & conditions. That may be so, but it’s obvious that few users have the time (or inclination) to read these. A survey published by Deloitte found that 90% of people accept terms and conditions without ever reading them. Another study by thinkmoney revealed that it would take 17 hours to read the terms & conditions of the top 13 apps at the time.

Governments have attempted to intervene with stricter regulations when it comes to collecting and storing user data, such as the EU’s GDPR laws. However the sad reality is that enforcing these rules is nigh-impossible. The global nature of the internet means that local policies are usually seen as guidelines at best.

It’s clear that we need a new way of doing things, to put control over data and privacy back in the hands of consumers. Here’s where blockchain could come in.

What is blockchain?

You’ve probably heard about it in the context of cryptocurrencies like BitCoin. The reason cryptocurrencies have gotten so many people excited is because they allow for a decentralised currency, without the need for banks or governments. These currencies all have one thing in common. They all utilise a technology called blockchain.

Without getting too technical, blockchain works by distributing information across a network of users. Data isn’t stored on a single server, or owned by a single company. Instead information is fragmented into ‘blocks’ and distributed between participating computers (generally the users of that service). The blocks are ‘chained’ together, allowing the information to be recalled in the correct sequence. The exchange of data is recorded in an open, distributed ‘ledger’ that can’t be altered retroactively.

No individual entity has control over the exchange of information in the blockchain, so it’s virtually impossible to monopolise or tamper with it.

All of this boils down to decentralisation. By using a blockchain-based service, consumers no longer depend on a central authority to manage the exchange of personal information. This eliminates the need for many of the “men-in-the-middle” once needed to provide web-based service.  As an added benefit, it also makes it much harder for malicious third parties to block, manipulate or take down facilities.

We’ve already seen how powerful this technology can be in the world of finance, with cryptocurrencies like BitCoin. With the right backing and adoption, these currencies could seriously disrupt the existing financial model. But the technology can be applied to many other things beyond finance. Forecasters anticipate that over the next several years, we’ll see blockchain revolutionise lots of different services.

How does blockchain work?

Uses for blockchain in web applications

We’re already starting to see examples of blockchain applications in use, and we can expect to see more emerge in the coming years. Here are just a few of the ways that blockchain technology is being utilised by web applications.

Blockchain & authentication

When it comes to user authentication, blockchain is pretty revolutionary. This is because records of transactions or signatures won’t live on a central server. Once made, the evidence can’t be deleted or edited… At least not without a publicly visible record of this change being made in the ledger.

By tracking every stage of a transaction in this way, we can refer back to every agreement, process and payment in a transparent & sharable way. It means digital signatures and agreements will be much more reliable, and will have greater legal standing. This in turn will lead to more effective dispute resolution between organisations and customers.

A blockchain-based model also reduces the risk of fraud. Having a more transparent system of authentication means that participants can be held much more to account for their decisions and dealings. With an incorruptible record of transactions, everyone is better equipped for when things go wrong.

Organisations who previously held back on digitising their processes should soon feel at ease, knowing that agreements made in blockchain applications are much more inscrutable. Think employment contracts, home purchase agreements or visa applications. All of these processes will be much easier to handle online.

Blockchain & social media

The spreading of fake news is a huge issue facing social media services… and it’s gotten worse in recent years. We’ve all seen the catastrophic effect that disinformation can have when it comes to things like election influencing, coronavirus denying, and 5G conspiracy theories. By leveraging blockchain technology, services can trace posts more back to their owners more effectively and call out the originators of fake news. It could even help us identify bots.

The technology also allows for much more secure ‘closed loop’ social media services, without fear of eavesdroppers. By giving users greater control, they can decide exactly who sees their information, and how much they want to disclose.

We could also see the introduction of transactional models for sharing data with advertisers. With the power of disclosure much more in the user’s hands, they could be able to sell access to their information. There isn’t a clear census yet on how these kinds of features would work. It’s an interesting idea though – and one that would put the ball firmly in the user’s court when it comes to the monetisation of their own personal data.

Blockchain & supply chain management

Blockchain can improve the visibility of a product’s life cycle – from the purchase of raw ingredients to shipping and distribution. We live in a world where adhering to global sanctions and protecting human rights is of the utmost importance.

Consumer goods companies are usually keen to eradicate unethical or unsustainable conduct from the supply chain. Blockchain can provide better and more thorough analytics in this respect, as information passed between parties without the danger of tampering by intermediaries. This can help businesses, investors and whistleblowers ensure that products are ethically sourced.

The ethical case for (and against) decentralised services

Having a decentralised web provides many humanitarian benefits. In recent years, we’ve seen some frightening examples of totalitarian states around the world seeking to regulate a ’state-controlled  internet’. With this can come widespread misinformation, restriction of civil liberties, and in some extreme cases the targeted persecution of minorities.

With blockchain powered services, it becomes more difficult for governments to have total control of the web. It makes it harder for governments to simply ’shut down’ what they don’t like. It’s a huge win for freedom of speech, and privacy in general.

That being said, technology is always a double-edged sword. There are some major ethical debates going on around whether governments should in fact be allowed some ability to intervene in the transfer of information. When used responsibility, lives that can be saved thanks to government’s ability to intercept private messages that plot illegal conduct and terror attacks. This will become much more difficult when data isn’t centralised. Some argue therefore, that a certain degree of control can be a good thing.

It’s a fascinating debate, and one that will enter the public zeitgeist as blockchain applications are adopted by the mainstream.

The future of blockchain in web applications

This technology won’t fundamentally change the way we design apps from a user interface point of view. What it will do is bring privacy and data control much more to the forefront of the experience. In our view this can only be a good thing, as it allows reputable brands (like the ones we work) to build greater trust with their audiences.

We’re excited to see how these evolving technologies take shape. With the various possibilities for blockchain in the applications we design, we’re certain it’s something we’ll be talking about more often.

Chris Myhill

Chris Myhill