The technology will revolutionize the way we trade, but the benefits of speed and transparency may come at the cost of privacy protection and jobs, UNCTAD eCommerce Week hears.
Blockchain technology is changing the game of supply chain management, but who will be the winners and losers was a topic of debate on 4 April at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland
Businesses and customers will surely save time and money and enjoy better transparency and traceability. But the public ledger technology could make data privacy even harder to protect and leave more workers without a job.
This is worrying from an economic and social development perspective, speakers said at a session on blockchain and trade logistics during UNCTAD’s eCommerce Week, convening from 1 to 5 April at the Palais des Nations.
“With any technology disruption, I think labour force is one area we need to look at closely,” said Ziyang Fan, head of digital trade at the World Economic Forum.
Mr. Fan said innovations in trade logistics have traditionally hurt "blue-collar" workers but that this is changing with the ‘fourth industrial revolution’.
“With blockchain, with artificial intelligence, the ‘white-collar’ workers will face more disruption in terms of job loss,” he said, citing the examples of port clerks and supply chain middlemen.
Stuck in the past
Alvaro Cedeno, Costa Rica’s former ambassador to the World Trade Organization, worried that technologies like blockchain will leave worse off those who still don’t even enjoy access to basic technologies.
“There are literally billions of human beings that still haven’t even received the benefits of the third industrial revolution – and in some cases even the second industrial revolution,” he said, citing the 1 billion people who don’t have electricity and the 4 billion who lack access to the internet.
“Are we thinking about including the excluded?” he asked.
This view was shared by Brian Iselin, founder and CEO of Slavefreetrade, a non-profit organization that sees blockchain as a tool to ensure slave labour isn’t used to make the products we buy.
“It certainly feels like the blockchain community is very, let’s say, Euro-centric or Western-centric,” said Mr. Iselin, who moderated the discussion.
“It’s worth considering who we’re leaving behind.”
The hype around blockchain technologies has meant that most discussions focus on the benefits. But Shamika N. Sirimanne, who directs UNCTAD’s work on technology and logistics, said it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge the risks.
"We must ask ourselves what blockchain can mean for developing countries,” she said.
In addition to job loss, an important risk of blockchain is less data privacy protection, said Virginia Cram-Martos, who runs Triangularity SàRL, a technology consultancy based in Geneva.
“The pseudo-anarchists who developed blockchain were thinking about hiding everything from governments,” she said.
“But the truth of the matter is, you can design a blockchain system that is the exact opposite – that completely destroys privacy for everyone by tracking everything that any individual does.”
“So, you have to be sure that you have privacy legislation in place that will prevent companies and government agencies from using that aspect of blockchain for something that you don’t want to happen,” she added.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in many parts of the world.
According to UNCTAD’s Cyberlaw Tracker, just 58% of countries report having data protection and privacy laws. And this drops to 52% when it comes to laws protecting consumers online.