Smart Contracts… or Dumb Software

The role of smart contracts in blockchain technology is creating an emerging area of jurisprudence which largely overlaps with computer programming. However, one of the first comments I heard about smart contracts when I started working in the blockchain and crypto industry was that they are “neither smart, nor legal”. What does this paradox mean in practice?

First, smart contracts are not “smart”, because they still largely rely on human coders. While self-replicating and self-executing software programs exist, a smart contact contains human-defined parameters or conditions that will trigger the performance of the contract terms once those conditions have been met. The simplest example might be coded as a type of  “if this, then that” function. For example, I could create a smart contract so that every time the temperature drops below 15 degrees, the heating comes on in my house, provided that there is sufficient credit in the digital wallet connected to my utilities billing account.

Second, smart contracts are not “legal”, unless they comprise the necessary elements that form a legally binding agreement: intent, offer, acceptance, consideration, capacity, certainty and legality. They must be capable of being enforceable in the event that one party defaults, but they must not be contrary to public policy, and parties must not have been placed under any form of duress to enter into a contract. Furthermore, there must be an agreed governing law, especially if the parties are in different jurisdictions, and the parties must agree to be subject to a legal venue capable of enforcing or adjudicating the contract in the event of a breach or dispute.

Some legal contacts still need to be in a prescribed form, or in hard copy with a wet signature. A few may need to be under seal or attract stamp duty. Most consumer contracts (and many commercial contracts) are governed by rules relating to unfair contract terms and unconscionable conduct. But assuming a smart contract is capable of being created, notarised and executed entirely on the blockchain, what other legal principles may need to be considered when it comes to capacity and enforcement?

We are all familiar with the process of clicking “Agree” buttons every time we sign up for a social media account, download software or subscribe to digital content. Let’s assume that even with a “free” social media account, there is consideration (i.e., there’s something in it for the consumer in return for providing some personal details), and both parties have the capacity (e.g., they are old enough) and the intent to enter into a contract, the agreement is usually no more than a non-transferable and non-exclusive license granted to the consumer. The license may be revoked at any time, and may even attract penalties in the event of a breach by the end user. There is rarely a transfer of title or ownership to the consumer (if anything, social media platforms effectively acquire the rights to the users’ content), and there is nothing to say that the license will continue into perpetuity. But think how many of these on-line agreements we enter into each day, every time we log into a service or run a piece of software. Soon, those “Agree” buttons could represent individual smart contracts.

When we interact with on-line content, we are generally dealing with a recognised brand or service provider, which represents a known legal entity (a company or corporation). In turn, that entity is capable of entering into a contract, and is also capable of suing/being sued. Legal entities still need to be directed by natural persons (humans) in the form of owners, directors, officers, employees, authorised agents and appointed representatives, who act and perform tasks on behalf of the entity. Where a service provider comprises a highly centralised entity, identifying the responsible party is relatively easy, even if it may require a detailed company search in the case of complex ownership structures and subsidiaries. So what would be the outcome if you entered into a contract with what you thought was an actual person or real company, but it turned out to be an autonmous bot or an instance of disembodied AI – who or what is the counter-party to be held liable in the event something goes awry?

Until DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations) are given formal legal recognition (including the ability to be sued), it is a grey area as to who may or may not be responsible for the actions of a DAO-based project, and which may be the counter-party to a smart contract. More importantly, who will be responsible for the consequences of the DAO’s actions, once the project is in the community and functioning according to its decentralised rules of self-governance? Some jurisdictions are already drafting laws that will recognise certain DAOs as formal legal entities, which could take the form of a limited liability partnership model or perhaps a particular type of special purpose vehicle. Establishing authority, responsibility and liability will focus on the DAO governance structure: who controls the consensus mechanism, and how do they exercise that control? Is voting to amend the DAO constitution based on proof of stake?

Despite these emerging uncertainties, and the limitations inherent in smart contracts, it’s clear that these programs, where code is increasingly the law, will govern more and more areas of our lives. I see huge potential for smart contracts to be deployed in long-dated agreements such as life insurance policies, home mortgages, pension plans, trusts, wills and estates. These types of legal documents should be capable of evolving dynamically (and programmatically) as our personal circumstances, financial needs and living arrangements also change over time. Hopefully, these smart contracts will also bring greater certainty, clarity and efficiency in the drafting, performance, execution and modification of their terms and conditions.

Next week: Free speech up for sale