Brussels / 2 & 3 February 2019


Interview with Deb Nicholson
Blockchain: The Ethical Considerations

Photo of Deb Nicholson

Deb Nicholson will give a talk about Blockchain: The Ethical Considerations at FOSDEM 2019.

Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I’m very interested in the ways technology affects people’s lives — our liberty, our access to power and our freedom of expression. I used to work locally on free speech and civil liberties issues before joining the free software movement around twelve years ago. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who has access to technology, how much power we have over the systems we interact with and how we can level things out and welcome more people into tech in an empowering, rather than exploitative way. So I’ve worked for the Free Software Foundation and Open Invention Network, volunteered at OpenHatch and MediaGoblin and this year I joined the Software Freedom Conservancy as a full-time employee.

Q: What will your talk be about, exactly? Why this topic?

I want to talk about the kinds of ethical decisions we might make as we start building more things with blockchain and migrating existing functions to blockchain. Blockchain has lots of potential to make certain activities very efficient, but it might also help us codify existing prejudices and inequalities.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

FOSDEM is full of developers who care deeply about technology and how what they’re building affects the world they live in. I want to highlight some of the ways that blockchain could be misused or lead to undesirable outcomes for the developers who might be in the room when ideas are being discussed.

Q: One of the problems of Bitcoin and other Proof of Work blockchain systems is the massive amount of computing power and hence energy consumption they require. More and more blockchain systems are now choosing Proof of Stake-type algorithms, which significantly cuts back on energy consumption. Is this a step in the good direction for the decentralization that blockchain technology promised?

Obviously, less power consumption is good. There’s no question about that. But Proof of Stake, like Proof of Work still rewards its wealthiest participants with the most earning potential. I guess I’d be the most excited about a system that didn’t automatically help its wealthiest participants earn more, while still reducing power consumption. Decentralization that primarily benefits the wealthy is not a decentralization that we should be working towards.

Q: Blockchain is being hyped as a technology that disrupts a lot of industries. What is one domain where it really shines in your opinion?

The humanitarian work that people are building has a lot of potential to do good for the world. There are also niches where a few individuals might not want to shoulder the risk of some project or activity or custom device but might decide to do it collectively via blockchain to balance out the cost — maybe even in a way that is adjusted for the average income where you live.

Q: What is the most important message you want to give to developers working on blockchain projects?

I would ask people to think about what the services they build will be like for someone who is poor, or doesn’t speak your language, or may have a different expectation for the relationship between your employer and its customers. If you are building tools that are important — that you hope many people will use — then those tools need to respect as many types of users as possible.

Q: Have you enjoyed previous FOSDEM editions?

I love FOSDEM! This will be my eighth time attending. Community-run conferences are absolutely critical for the growth of the free software community. I really love the international draw and the wide range of topics covered. FOSDEM is big and well-organized and yet still manages to retain a real community DIY feel — thanks for having me on the main stage and thanks for putting on a great event!

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.