Blog Articles

By - Brian Iselin

Published : 28-09-2018

The forms of blockchain - slavefreetrade's use case

We at slavefreetrade, have been tangoing with blockchain for around 2 years now. And in our journey we have learnt a LOT about it, and one thing in particular we can comment on is some of the leading misapprehensions about it (besides so many people still asking what it is!).

So, one of the leading misapprehensions is about the forms blockchains can take. As the majority of the blockchain aware out there know, there are a number of forms blockchain can take: open and closed, private and public, permissioned and permissionless. Most people hear about the public, open, permissionless chains, like Bitcoin and Ethereum.

A smaller group know about the larger private chains, like Hyperledger.

And nobody really hears anything about the rest, the closed private permissioned ones, for example. Partly because they operate essentially like an intranet for an organization, so why would we hear about them? But they exist. And in droves. The varieties extend well beyond what the average person reads about in the press.

From the moment you stick your toe in the blockchain waters, there are choices to me made all along the way about the form your use case demands. And you will never run short of opinions about what you should do. By all means listen, but then decide for yourself not on the name or the reputation of what an particular evangelist is telling you.

All of the choices being made about what form of blockchain you use depends on a multiplicity of factors. For us, a big one is identity management, and, in many ways, this is THE key determinant of what forms your blockchain will take. We have two competing needs, and sometimes conflicting needs, on the question of identity.

In the employee-facing part of our work, anonymity is crucial. We need to know every employee of a company is who they say they are. We must be able to verify them. We need to know where they are, what they do, and reconcile their identity with formal records. And we are in direct contact with each of them in real-time. But, and this is the value of the zero-knowledge proof (Google “Ali Baba cave analogy” if you don’t know about this proof) feature that blockchain can provide, we also must keep them anonymous in the system. We ask employees questions about their working conditions, based on our human rights framework. But their answers cannot betray their identity. So, in this part of our use case, anonymity is not just a good thing, but an essential thing.

In the employer-facing part of our work, however, where we chart and examine supply chains, anonymity is a bad thing. We want to know exactly who all the participants are, and we need to know who they are. Obviously, we cannot vouch for a workplace if we don’t know what or who it is. But the users of the system don't want full transparency. Businesses do not want their full supply chain or value chain laid bare to competitors. So businesses that have their supply chains being monitored by us don't want to share all their business data with all the participants in our network, only with selected participants; their business partners. And they want to share some information with consumers to demonstrate their commitment to human rights standards. They also need to share enough information to be able to find out about others they can work with, identify new business partners, and be found by new business partners.

Our business clients want to control who sees what type of information under what circumstances, and we also want to control who is able to contribute that information onto the blockchain. So, we were unable to reconcile these competing needs on platforms like ether and so, at slavefreetrade we opted for Hyperledger Fabric, a private blockchain, where only our own authorised personnel and the businesses inside can see what is going on the dataset of the client. This provides transparency, with limits. And very limited visibility to competitors.

Certain types of information, like scorecard results and verification status, are shared by the participants in the one supply chain; each business can see how the businesses in their chain are performing. We do this because everyone in the one supply chain has a vested interest in keeping their verification status, and making sure everyone else does, so they can sell their products to consumers bearing the " slave-free" mark.

So consumers can see visibily on consumer-facing products, such as chocolate, the outputs of the verification process, whether a product is slave-free or not, where the supply chain is, and what is the human rights performance of all actors in that chain. It is a mission-critical part of what we do to be able to conmmunicate to consumers the good that businesses do in their supply chain, and how all the actors in that supply chain are working together to promote the rights of their employees. So every participant in our chain wants to share some, but not all, of their macro-data, with selected audiences.

Importantly, and happily, choosing the platform that worked best for our use case also took away the dangerous variability that came from ‘gas price’’ per transaction. This was a big issue for us to consider; our clients need to know exactly what the price is in being in our system, without the possibility of substantial rises and falls in that price. And we certainly don’t want to sign up a client who won’t pay for that variation, as someone has to pay it; it might be us. No good. We need certainty of cost.

In an effort to share a simple thing that we have learned about the different forms blockchains take, different blockchain use cases will determine form; form will follow function. Public is not better or worse than private. Permissioned not better or worse than permissionless. Open not better or worse than closed.

So, if you are now, or soon, going to stick your toes in the blockchain water, one of the first places to start is to examine your identity management needs. The form you will eventually adopt depends 100% on your use case and, don't forget, any solution can be a hybrid of these to suit your work. In our blockchain, which comprises only a useful small part of our overall platform, we need to know who all the participants are right from the beginning. But keep prying eyes from seeing - or altering - bits they shouldn't.