This paper will focus on mechanisms affecting global standardisation efforts on integrating blockchains into the web and their utilisation in the form of national regulatory developments and the actions of non-state actors. It has been argued that the blockchain technology - an open distributed ledger which records all transactions and is maintained and updated by various counterparts (ENISA, 2017) – may become “a truly transformative social technology”, “the equivalent of Web 2.0 social networks” (Guandamuz and Marsden, 2015). Within this virtual system, cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin can operate independent of any issuing (sovereign) authority (Guandamuz and Marsden, 2015). Globally, financial institutions (e.g. central banks) and governments are investing in the utilisation of the blockchain technology (World Economic Forum, 2016; ENISA, 2017) which promises, among others, efficiency, transparency, lower transaction costs for consumers and innovation. In addition to financial services, blockchains can be utilised in areas of creative works attribution, licensing and archiving, personal data tracking. A key characteristic of the technology is that it works as an “append-only data store”, which means that data can be added to the store, but it cannot be removed (Tennison, 2015). The irreversibility of the data could, however, go against the “right to be forgotten”, an important aspect in the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (Tennison, 2015).
The paper details technical standardisation initiatives within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) focussing on questions of the security, privacy and anonymity of distributed identity management on the web. The W3C work on blockchain aims at developing specifications for creating and using digital assets on the blockchains (Blockchain Digital Assets Community Group) and standards for interchange of electronic data and storage (Blockchain Community Group). W3C-initiated stakeholder consultations have mainly attracted participants from the private sector, amongst them financial institutions, browser developers, and blockchain project leaders, along with security and privacy researchers. Whereas, incumbents such as IBM and Microsoft have warned against top-down and premature approaches to standardisation, smaller innovative firms have called for a single standard-setting body, perhaps flanked by state legislation, which ensures interoperability between chains and common architectures (see Le Hors, 2016; Nadalin, 2016; Teis, 2016). The paper details exogenous factors influencing agreement amongst private sector actors (incumbents, innovators, standard-setters and regulators) and explores how those shape the development of a technology of significant social relevance.