The European Association of Private International Law will hold its founding conference in Aarhus on 14, 15 and 16 May 2020. We have invited the speakers to talk in turn about the topic of their presentations and briefly address the issues they will be discussing in Aarhus. The first speaker we host in this series is Matthias Lehmann, of the University of Bonn. His presentation, on Blockchains and Smart Contracts, is part of a block devoted to ‘Digitalization and European Private International Law’.
Blockchain and smart contracts are based on Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), which combines the decentralised storage and validation of information with the use of modern cryptography. Both blockchain and smart contracts pose novel and unique challenges to Private International Law (PIL).
The first challenge is getting a proper grasp of the technology, which comes in many different forms and shapes. The benefits and potential applications are often widely exaggerated, while the real working is not fully understood. Evidently, there are obstacles in the communication between coders and lawyers. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that the technology is constantly evolving, creating the risk of any legal analysis being quickly outdated.
What is relevant for lawyers is that the blockchain allows to record new types of “crypto assets” and to transfer them easily around the globe. It can also be used for the transfer of copyrights, data or real-world assets, such as commodities or real estate. Given the value of the crypto assets, and their vulnerability to attacks (e.g. through hacks or fraud), it is necessary to put them under some sort of legal protection. Which legal protection is granted depends on the applicable national law, which must be determined first.
Smart contracts are computer programmes grafted onto the blockchain. In their most common application, they are used to automatically enforce obligations, excluding any resistance by the debtor. In such applications, they do not create or amend legal rights but shift the factual situation without either party being able to stop the process. The execution of the programme may deviate from the parties’ agreement (e.g. due to some malfunction or the input of false data). This situation must be treated by the law. There is also a very different type of smart contract: These are agreements concluded exclusively through the workings of machine, and therefore are also called “algorithmic contracts”. In such cases, the need to determine an applicable law is even more obvious and challenging.
From a PIL perspective, a major problem is shoehorning the new phenomena into the categories of conflicts of laws. Crypto assets are intangible and have no obvious counterpart in the real world. They are legal chameleons oscillating between currencies, securities, and claims. Smart contracts can either be used to automatically enforce the obligations under a contract or to create a binding agreement through algorithms. All of this is new and, so far, has no parallel in PIL.
Once a category has been found or a new one created, it will be challenging to find proper connecting factors. These difficulties stem from the fact that the creators have designed DLT as being “a-national” in the double sense that it shall work without the law and be independent of any legal system. The information is spread on computers and servers all around the world and often there is no operator controlling the process. For these reasons, finding the most significant or closest connection for the blockchain and smart contracts creates considerable headaches, more so than the internet did at the time of its introduction.
The presentation will address these issues one by one. It will analyse the applicability of existing regulations (such as Rome I, Rome II or the Succession Regulation) and explore the need for new ones. But it will also ask whether the EU is the appropriate venue to deal with these questions or whether it would be preferable to look for a world-wide solution given the global nature of DLT.