Decoding the cryptocurrency craze

01/22/18 – BOSTON, MA. – Stock photo of Kodak Film on Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Kodak recently announced plans to launch a cryptocurrency, KODAKCoin, that photographers could use to accept payment. The platform would also serve as a digital ledger of photographers’ ownership rights.

The announcement is among the latest developments in the craze surrounding Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies underpinned by blockchain technology. While some people have made a fortune investing in these new currencies, others remain wary of their volatility.

Northeastern law professor Andrea Matwyshyn, who studies technology and innovation policy, has been following cryptocurrency for several years. She said that as with any new and untested tool, “the devil is always in the details.” It’s too soon to know how widely blockchain technology will spread, she said, or whether the value of cryptocurrencies will stabilize. Here, she expands on the promises and pitfalls of the tech behind these trendy buzzwords.

What are your initial thoughts about Kodak’s plan to launch a cryptocurrency?

If you look at the history of cryptocurrency, the internet is full of stories of unfortunate incidents where things have not gone as planned. The implementation of various cryptocurrencies has gone awry, exchanges have been compromised with people losing their investments, and other problems have arisen from not fully thinking through the minutia of how the new tool will play out in practice. Certainly, blockchain is all the rage right now. Apart from Kodak, a company that makes long island ice tea recently revealed that it would be launching a cryptocurrency, too, and expressed great enthusiasm about their valuation as a consequence of the announcement.

Those of us who have been following cryptocurrency for a while—four or five years—have been aware of various possible uses for blockchain technology, but the specifics really do matter in the way it’s implemented. There is a lot underneath the surface that will need to get explained before I can provide a thorough assessment of the potential of this implementation of a very new technological strategy.

Part of Kodak’s plan is to use blockchain technology to crawl the internet looking for copyright infringement. Do you think this strategy would be an improvement over current methods?  

Automated takedowns have been around for over a decade. But in the context of the Digital Mining Copyright Act, we know there are a lot of false positives. If you look at the volume of incorrect false positives and takedown notices, you see that the process may be abused in some cases. How would this be materially different or better than the current notice and takedown regime that has automated components to it?

That’s why I keep harping on the fact that the details really matter. We just saw how these automated takedown notices were levied against someone who posted white noise on YouTube. There’s an example of automated notices failing. We know that the state-of-the-art automation in that context works imperfectly. Without detailed evidence demonstrating the contrary, I’m skeptical that this kind of process would be error-free.

Is it possible that companies are announcing their intent to incorporate blockchain technologies and cryptocurrency as a play for publicity more than anything else?

Certainly, the drivers of some corporate interests in experimenting with blockchain implementation are the factors you referenced—the projecting as being engaged with the latest technology trends, to reinvigorate in some cases more traditional brands with the currency, being ‘up with the times.’ It really varies company to company.

Everyone wants to get a piece of the blockchain buzz right now, so the difficulty and the risk for companies that over-enthusiastically engage with creating some sort of blockchain implementation is perhaps parallel to some of the risks you see with overuse of artificial intelligence. AI means different things to different people, and blockchain means different things to different people in this context. For the purposes of seeming like you are in tune with the new technology trends, many companies are reaching for some type of blockchain and artificial intelligence product or component.

It’s interesting that the most popular use of at least one of the blockchain platforms has been the trading of cats on the internet. Basically, my punchline is that it really matters what you mean when you say that you’re going to be building out a blockchain component to a product or service.