With Sinclair Davidson and Jason Potts
If we could give Malcolm Turnbull one piece of economic advice right now – one piece of advice about how to protect the economy against a challenging and uncertain future – it would be this: don’t mess with encryption.
Earlier this month the government announced that it was going to “impose an obligation” on device manufacturers and service providers to provide law enforcement authorities access to encrypted information on the presentation of a warrant.
At the moment it’s unclear what exactly this means. Attorney-General George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull have repeatedly denied they want a legislated “backdoor” into encrypted devices, but the loose way they’ve used that language suggests some sort of backdoor requirement is still a real possibility.
Hopefully we’ll discover more when the legislation is introduced in the August sitting weeks. Turnbull did say at the press conference “I’m not suggesting this is not without some difficulty”. The government may not have made any final decisions yet.
But before any legislation is introduced, the government needs to understand what the stakes are in as they strive against encryption.
Anything the government does to undermine the reliability of encryption could have deleterious consequences for what we believe will be the engine of economic growth in decades to come: the blockchain protocol.
The blockchain is the distributed and decentralised ledger that powers the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Blockchain constitutes a suite of five technologies: cryptography, a database that can be added to but not altered, peer-to-peer networking, an application of game theory, and an algorithm for ensuring a consensus about what information is held on the ledger.
Taken separately, these are long established technologies and techniques – even mundane ones. But taken together, they constitute an entirely new tool for creating political, economic, and social relationships.
The possibilities far exceed digital currencies. Already banks and other financial institutions are trying to integrate blockchains into their business structures: blockchains drastically reduce the costs of tracking, recording, and verifying transactions. Almost any business or government organisation that is done with a database now can be done more efficiently, more reliably, and cheaper with a blockchain – property registers, intellectual property, security and logistics, healthcare records, you name it.
But these much publicised blockchain applications are just a small taste of the technology’s possibility. “Smart” self-executing contracts and massively distributed organisational structures enabled by the blockchain will allow the creation of new forms of business structures and new ways to work together in every sector and every industry.
In fact, we think that the blockchain is so significant that it should be treated as its own category of human organisation. There are firms, there are markets, there are governments, and now there are blockchains.
But the blockchain revolution is not inevitable.
If there is one key technology in the blockchain, it is cryptography. There are lots of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs playing around with lots of different adaptations of the blockchain protocol, but this one is a constant: the blockchain’s nested levels of encryption are built to ensure that once something is placed on the blockchain it is permanent, immutable, and only accessible to those who own it.
Blockchains only work because their users have absolute confidence that the system is secure.
Any legal restrictions, constraints or hurdles placed on encryption will be a barrier to the introduction of this remarkable new economic technology. In fact, any suggestion of future regulatory challenges to encryption will pull the handbrake on blockchain in Australia. In the wake of the banking, mining and carbon taxes, Australia already has a serious regime uncertainty problem.
Melbourne in particular is starting to see the growth of a small but prospective financial technology industry of which blockchain is a central part. The Australian Financial Review reported earlier this week about the opening of a new fintech hub Stone & Chalk in the establishment heart of Collins St. What’s happening in Melbourne is exactly the sort of innovation-led economic growth that the Coalition government was talking about in the 2016 election.
But the government won’t be able to cash in on those innovation dividends if they threaten encryption: the simple and essential technology at the heart of the blockchain.