Summary: The global adoption of digital assets and related blockchain technology has network effects, which suggest that programmable legal contracts, including automated dispute resolution mechanisms, might not only be feasible but one day common in international transactions and arbitration. Obstacles to this outcome include, inter alia, still nascent regulatory guidance on digital assets and lack of interoperability, both among blockchains and legacy software applications.
Recent innovations in dispute resolution include the creation of opt-in computing protocols (or smart contracts) that rely on blockchains, game theory and crowdsourcing to adjudicate disputes and provide automatic enforcement of decisions when certain predetermined conditions are met.  In 2021, the UK Jurisdiction Taskforce published the Digital Dispute Resolution Rules (DDR Rules), which start from the proposition that the “outcome of any automatic dispute resolution process shall be legally binding on interested parties” and that the DDR Rules will address via arbitration “any dispute between interested parties arising out of the relevant contract or digital asset which was not the subject of an automatic dispute resolution process. 
Does the integration of automatic dispute resolution into traditional arbitration show the way for the future of dispute resolution involving digital assets and technology specifically? Or does it show the way for the future of arbitration more generally? There are arguments in favor of both views. But the outcome may ultimately depend on whether and when there is mass adoption of digital assets and related technologies, including smart contracts.
Digital assets refer to coded property, which may be fungible (like a digital currency token) or non-fungible (like an original digital artwork). The existence of digital assets depends largely on cryptographic algorithms and consensus-forming protocols, which enable parties to secure, transfer, and indelibly record ownership on (in some cases) 1000s of identical and globally distributed public ledgers known as blockchains.
Because blockchains can be decentralized and rely on open-source software to solve problems traditionally addressed by institutions – e.g., preventing someone from “double spending” the same token of economic value – blockchains may offer not only security, permanency, and transparency for transactions, but also cost efficiency. Further, because in principle any type of decentralized software application (dApp) may utilize blockchains, they have a range of possible use cases, from providing financial services to managing oil and gas supply chains, all potentially accessible via a decentralized internet, Web3.
For businesses who aim to integrate digital assets and related technologies, novel regulatory questions arise in a number of settings:
Many of these issues require a deep dive. Do similarly novel technical or legal issues arise for international arbitration? One answer is surely, no. Arbitration is technologically agnostic and already at home with cross-border transactions. Moreover, digital assets are subject to regulation like any other asset. Provided a given digital asset can be classified – e.g., as a commodity, such as gold, or a currency, such as USD, or as a security, such as stock – such assets can be analyzed within the framework of a bilateral treaty’s definition of investment or a nation’s legal definitions of property.
Likewise, from a procedural standpoint, there is arguably little to adjust. Millions of digital asset transactions are already completed subject to established commercial arbitration rules such as JAMS or AAA. A HKIAC arbitration with up to 700 claimants seeking damages for loss of digital assets is reportedly pending. This is not too surprising. Incorporating arbitration rules “by reference” into a contract on any subject matter is a semantic and legal notion, not a technological one.
That said, this general view is worth reconsidering given the enormous expansion of digital asset markets (to trillions of USD) and the parallel adoption of related blockchain technologies. In particular, one may further consider the following:
As a dispute resolution mechanism for cross-border transactions and investments, international arbitration is enforced by one of the most important and successful treaties in the history of private international law, i.e., the Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York, 1958) (the "New York Convention"). The New York Convention is in force in 169 countries to date and is only one of several treaties (e.g., ICSID Convention) in support of the enforcement of arbitration agreements and arbitral awards worldwide.
Historically, dispute resolution within this framework has proven resilient and flexible. Arbitral institutions routinely adopt procedural rule changes, as well as technological innovations to deal with ediscovery, docket management systems, and virtual hearing platforms. At the outset of the global pandemic in 2020, many arbitral institutions already had digital platforms and/or virtual hearings to allow litigants to participate in far-flung jurisdictions. Moreover, the adoption of these technologies was possible with ameliorative rather than fundamental changes to their procedural or legal framework.
Ultimately, however, this steady state of affairs largely endures because of the users of arbitration, not its facilitators. Specifically, whatever else about the world has changed, the basic mode of contracting commercial agreements or treaties has changed little: a digital copy of a contract (even a digitally signed copy) does not much alter its terms or legal underpinnings or the means of resolving disputes that may arise because of it.
The same might be said even if parties decide to use a ledger or blockchain to negotiate, sign and record agreements, i.e., for the sake of security, transparency and permanency. But there are potentially disruptive forms of contracting.
Smart Legal Contracts
In the 1990s, cryptographer Ian Grigg proposed capturing the intent of legal agreements in machine-readable language in order to create programmable legal contracts that could connect to computing networks and self-execute if certain agreed conditions were met, say payment or shipment terms, as evidenced by inputs from networks to which the contract was connected. In principle, network nodes might also include, for example, models for mapping the critical path of construction projects to adjudicate delay damages or inputs for calculating interest, currency conversions, or spot prices among interrelated contracts.
Smart legal contracts in this sense could have many forms. A digital legal “wrapper” may be put around digital art or any digital token representing ownership of a tangible asset. These wrappers may articulate licensing, fractional ownership, or chain of title. Within this context too, parties may include programmable dispute resolution mechanisms: When certain events occur, a pre-agreed dispute resolution mechanism can be triggered, along with follow-on procedural events executed by an automated dispute resolution platform.
Automatic Dispute Resolution
One such platform, Kleros, uses computing protocols to adjudicate disputes with competing but clear possible outcomes and to enforce the resulting decisions automatically, e.g., using escrowed funds. When parties opt-in and agree to automatic enforcement via smart contracts, they are also able to select the number of voting arbitrators and their (non-legal) industry specialization. These arbitrators are crowdsourced anonymously from a pool of participants in the event a dispute arises.
While such arbitrators or “jurors” are financially compensated, arbitrators whose votes do not agree with the ultimate ruling, which is not disclosed until final decision is reached, forfeit part of the financial “stake” they post in order to participate in the resolution process. Parties can appeal. However, each new appeal will have twice the previous number of arbitrators plus one and thus come at a greater cost to the appellant, who is dis-incentivized from appealing more than a “moderate” amount of times.
Digital Asset Arbitration
The above process provides a means to resolve some digital asset disputes with fading resemblance to typical arbitration procedures. The UK Jurisdiction Taskforce’s DDR Rules consider such mechanisms explicitly, by stating that all or part of a dispute may be subject to such protocols, alongside more traditional adjudication for any issues not so resolved. Under the DDR Rules, “an automatic dispute resolution process means a process associated with a digital asset that is intended to resolve a dispute between interested parties by the automatic selection of a person or panel or artificial intelligence agent whose vote or decision is implemented directly within the digital asset system . . . ”
The DDR Rules themselves have some features in common with automatic dispute resolution such as the option for parties to remain anonymous and for decisions to be enforced and recorded on chain. At the same time, the DDR Rules retain procedures, which put it squarely within a legal framework for enforcement. Thus, the DDR Rules rely on the Society for Computers and Law to appoint arbitrators and propose London as the seat of arbitration and English law as the substantive law of contracts.
While neither automatic dispute resolution nor digital asset arbitration rules may be necessary to deal with disputes involving digital assets, these approaches seek to meet the needs and preferences of their end users. To take a step further: it is plausible that a digital convergence of contractual agreements, decentralized networks, and business practice could make smart legal contracts, and automatic dispute resolution, not only feasible but ubiquitous.
The broad adoption of smart legal contracts, however, presupposes (among other things) that individuals and companies may expect a high degree of interoperability and cross-chain compatibility for their smart legal agreements to operate, i.e., that their funds, contracts, products, services and data will function harmoniously despite residing on different blockchains or electronic data interchange systems (EDI) or other legacy networks (including banking). Further, broad adoption presupposes a stable and clear regulatory environment that can support institutional and retail participation. All of this is work in progress.
The mass adoption of technology often lags behind its creation. Queen Elizabeth II sent an email in 1976, but mass adoption was still twenty years off. For the purpose of divining the impact of digital assets on legal agreements, and hence international commercial or treaty arbitration, the most important feature is thus arguably network effects. Without them, you have video conferencing in 1968 or email in 1976 - interesting to note, but not enough people are able or incentivized to use them in a business context.
By contrast, if network effects are present and positive, users begin to derive more value as other users join the same network. Because additional users increase the value of the network, non-users are incentivized to join. This feedback loop can spark mass network participation. Social media is one example and often considered illustrative of Metcalfe's Law, i.e., the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of its users.
Digital assets may have added impact in this regard because they involve the exchange of value itself. If the adoption of digital assets - as currency, as stores of value, as property, or as tokens of tangible asset ownership – continues to accelerate and be a driver of change, the network effects resulting from connected and related technologies (including Al and smart legal contracts), suggest exponential change is in store for business and finance built on this new infrastructure.
Many aspire to reach this goal: for example, by creating 3D virtual communities in which individuals use a digital persona to both work and play. To the extent individuals are rewarded for participating, financially or otherwise, the migration to virtual worlds is sometimes called “gamification.” This can occur in closed centralized networks, e.g., controlled by a single company, or on open, decentralized networks governed by programmable rules. In the latter case, value and ownership may not simply accrue to a proprietary platform, which visitors merely use, but instead accrue directly to users (e.g., via “digital wallets” they alone control and which enable self-custody of assets and information, as well as enable financial transactions).
The totality of such projects is one view of the so-called metaverse, i.e., a persistent 3D digital environment in which individuals, teams, companies or organizations across legal jurisdictions may carry out analog world projects, as well as many new digital ones. The metaverse is a native habitat for digital assets but also, potentially, creatures of contract, such as smart legal contracts, automatic dispute resolution, and the international arbitration rules and institutions supporting them.
Because digital assets may touch nearly every industry sector and do so globally– e.g., through payment rails, tokenization of assets, finance applications, or even legal tender–businesses large and small can anticipate a role in digital asset economies, whether to their advantage or disadvantage. It is thus increasingly important to consider how these technologies may impact one’s business, foreign investments, and related disputes, both procedurally and substantively.
For more information on the topics discussed in this Locke Lord QuickStudy, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
--- See, e.g., Kleros.
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