When blockchain burst onto the scene in 2009/2010, we watched as Bitcoin forever disrupted our monetary system. As the technology hits critical mass—a recent Deloitte survey showed a 2000% increase in interest in blockchain since its inception—the revolution has forked into two sides. There are the purists who want to only keep blockchains public, and the upstarts who see huge value in its private uses.
When lines are drawn in the sand of any disruptive change, it can seem like there is an undeniable right. But, what if we’re getting in the way of real revolution by fighting an unnecessary battle?
Breaking Down the Beef
The Argument for Public, or Permissionless, Blockchains
Down with centralization, eliminate the middleman. Satoshi minimalists evangelize for a pure peer-to-peer system, uncorrupted by larger networks, corporations or governments. The beauty of Bitcoin was the emergence of databases both immutable and unburdened by firewalls, accessible to anonymous players who bought into a shared economic belief system. Complete transparency on a global scale was its defining feature. In this thrilling first wave of ICO-driven public blockchains, it was considered unsportsmanlike, if not unethical, to build and sell permissionless entities without an associated cryptocurrency. Any enterprise-driven motive would surely pollute the blockchain’s democratic roots.
The Argument for Private, or Permission, Blockchains
Amid all the enthusiasm for open read-and-write blockchains around cryptocurrencies, there started a rumble around the question of private blockchains. Permission-based platforms, in which access to read and write was assigned, were designed to address two vital issues:
- Data relevancy — Bitcoin lovers champion a world in which institutions don’t have control over information and transactions. But, the reality in the enterprise world is commerce businesses need a hold on both. If the data you’re tasked with managing is relevant to only a handful of parties, why would you want to broadcast it to more?
- Data privacy — If at the end of the day, not all data is meant to be shared at large—supplier-vendor relationships, financial transactions or health data, for instance—it has no place on a public blockchain to begin with.
What the Debate Is Missing
The conversation regarding public versus private blockchain doesn’t have to be a polarizing one. It’s not an either/or debate but rather a question of application. Private blockchains don’t have to be viewed as the enemy, or a replacement for public ones. They are simply a case-specific option.
When taken out of the theoretical arena, there is room for both open read-and-write blockchains and those with access restrictions. What we find in practice, having developed numerous blockchain applications for both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, is that the apparently different requirements of each tend to converge over time.
That is, many applications built by entrepreneurs will integrate with one or more large corporate enterprises at some point, and will therefore need to address their needs (affordability, speed, boundaries, etc.). Similarly, many enterprise applications are tackling obstacles that currently prevent them from making their solutions more open and capable of incorporating tokens of some form.
Both sides are invested in the value of bringing integrity around data. So, arguing over whether to support private or public blockchains misses the point. The real world has needs for both.
A Call for Both Public and Private
The gifts of blockchain technology are extraordinary. It is our best defense against the threats of theft, fraud and hackers, and can bring needed efficiency to every aspect of the digital landscape. Enterprises need to ensure some level of security, privacy, compliance and performance that only a private blockchain can provide.
We also need public blockchains. They serve an enormous purpose whose value should never be denied. But private blockchains are not the enemy. To waste time demonizing them gets in the way of our tackling larger, more urgent questions. Where is this technology going next? How can we make best use of it in our daily lives? And, most importantly, how powerful will we be if we understand we’re all in this together?
This article was co-authored by Andrew “Flip” Filipowski, co-founder and co-CEO at Fluree. Flip was COO of Cullinet and was also the founder and CEO of PLATINUM technology, inc. He grew PLATINUM into the 8th largest software company in the world at the time of its sale to Computer Associates for $4 billion dollars. Upside Magazine named him one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Information Technology. A recipient of Entrepreneur of the Year Awards from both Ernst & Young and Merrill Lynch, Flip has also been awarded the Young President’s Organization Legacy Award and the Anti-Defamation League’s Torch of Liberty award for his work fighting hate on the Internet.