Bound in Blockchains


We have all clicked “I Accept” on terms and conditions that we’ve never read. Somehow, it doesn’t feel the same as writing our signature on a piece of paper; we would never physically sign a contract without reading it. So what happens when our creeping readiness to press ‘I Accept’ commits us to a series of blockchain transactions that we don’t understand?

As with all the interesting questions about the future of work, this one isn’t confined to technology, ethics, politics or economics. This cuts across everything and also raises questions for law makers about the nature of contracts and fairness.

We remember from our school days the stories of illiterate people being exploited by signing contracts that they couldn’t even read. There would be a huge amount of unintelligible text (imagine ink on parchments) above the person’s name against which they simply had to make “their mark” which would often be a simple X. I argue that today, the situation is no more reasonable. Apple, Google, Microsoft and the other big tech names force us into a position where we have no realistic choice but to accept whatever they want to commit us to. Often bundled as part of a necessary software update, these agreements are not only lengthy and written in technical language, they also give us the easiest way out. So, we have three choices: refuse the update (in which case our expensive device may become unuseable); take the time to read the detailed terms and conditions which we probably won’t understand anyway; or simply accept. I would love one of these big technology companies to tell us how many people they expect to choose each of those options as a percentage.

This may seem trivial. Other than gimmicks – such as the UK retailer who managed to get thousands of people to give legal ownership of their souls to the company on April Fools’ day) – this is all going to be pretty dry stuff, right? Well, it might be when taken in isolation. But, when we consider the prospect of a whole series of contracts and transactions being inextricably linked in a blockchain, in which one set of unintelligible terms and conditions reference another in a legally binding way, we are effectively offering our throats to a new set of overlords. We may console ourselves with the idea that legislators will protect us from this by not allowing it. My point is that they are allowing a form of it today. In law, it seems to be the case that however powerfully one party encourages the other not to read the small print, it is all fair game.

AI, Blockchains and computers do not have the same issues that we humans do with keeping track of detailed agreements and information. We can’t allow this to create a situation in which we are never quite sure what we are agreeing to and how it affects other things we have agreed to. There is a possible future here in which, with just a few clicks, we effectively become the legal property of commercial organisations and we should all be concerned about that.




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