Judging by last week’s flurry of blockchain related policy events in Brussels and beyond, it is safe to say that there is a great deal of interest in blockchain in the EU community. And the conversation has gone way beyond Bitcoin.

The week kicked off with a lunchtime debate on ‘How Blockchain can change the future’ at the British Chamber of Commerce, Brussels. Leading think tank, CEPS, then picked up the baton with a packed event on ‘Blockchain – Hype or Solution?’. Wednesday saw a meeting of the EU Blockchain Observatory & Forum on blockchain uses in the financial sector. And the OECD ended the week with its Global Blockchain Policy Forum.

Panelists were keen to stress that blockchain is ‘not a magic wand’ solution to every problem. It is however a secure, immutable database with seemingly infinite use cases, particularly when used as a foundation tier in a ‘tech stack’ with other technologies deployed on top.  Some examples discussed were:

  • Walmart’s use of blockchain for its supply chain that will allow health risks from faulty or contaminated produce to be traced back to source within seconds.
  • IPWe – a blockchain for the patent ecosystem, which brings together inventors, patent offices, patent owners and licensees to generate faster, more transparent transactions. Staggeringly, only 2% of registered patents are currently monetized.
  • TradeLens – a rapidly expanding shipping platform launched by Maersk and IBM which allows merchandise to be tracked on its journey from source to destination through all ports, checks and customs without the need for a hefty paper trail.
  • ID PASS – an open-sourced, blockchain-based solution which enables governments and humanitarian organizations to issue and verify identities.

Blockchain is in its infancy as a technology. The overarching recommendation to policymakers for the moment is to continue to learn about the possibilities of blockchain and encourage its development. With such wide and diverse applications, any future policy making is likely to be sector specific and technology neutral.

Yet as the Commission embarks on its new term, it will inevitably have to consider the impact of existing laws and new laws on emerging technologies like blockchain.

The GDPR’s ‘right to be forgotten’ might on its face seem fundamentally incompatible with a blockchain database that cannot be altered retrospectively. Yet developers and entrepreneurs are confident technical solutions can be found.

Potentially more problematic are future laws such as the ‘Digital Services Act’ encompassing a revision of the E-Commerce Directive. Here the decentralized nature of blockchain technology may challenge traditional thinking around safe harbors and platform liability. If there are no central controllers or intermediaries, who is the ‘platform’ and where might liability reside?  As these questions surface, the blockchain community, including those creating the software, and the entrepreneurs building businesses upon it would be wise to step up their efforts further to promote a deeper understanding of this technology’s potential and help to shape a regulatory environment that supports its development.