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One commonly cited argument in favor of blockchain-based smart contracts is that they are unambiguous. By delegating execution to a deterministic program, they leave no room for disagreement about the state of the contract. But this story is wrong. Smart contracts introduce new sources of ambiguity even as they eliminate old ones. The problem is that the result of a computation is a social fact. Bugs, forks, and attacks can cause parties to disagree on what a blockchain-hosted program actually did. The solution is social as well as technical. Modesty about how and why smart contracts work highlights the essential role of blockchain developer and user communities in making them work.
James Grimmelmann is a professor of law at Cornell Tech and Cornell Law School. He studies how laws regulating software affect freedom, wealth, and power. He helps lawyers and technologists understand each other, applying ideas from computer science to problems in law and vice versa. He is the author of the casebook Internet Law: Cases and Problems and of over forty scholarly articles and essays on digital copyright, search engine regulation, privacy on social networks, online governance, and other topics in computer and Internet law.
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