The platform business model has become a dominant force in today’s economy, as companies like Uber, eBay and Airbnb have disrupted their respective industries through eliminating barriers to entry and increasing ease of transactions.  Platforms have certainly added value and efficiency to their markets by empowering previously untapped populations of suppliers and facilitating interactions. However, one major flaw of these intermediaries is their failure to protect users’ private data.

 

Significant data breaches have become almost commonplace over the last few years, and several major platform businesses, including the likes of Facebook and Uber, have compromised massive amounts of personal information.  This past September, the New York Times reported that Facebook suffered an attack on its computer network that exposed the private data of nearly 50 million user accounts.  News of this breach broke on the heels of last year’s disturbing discovery that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal information of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political purposes.  As NPR reports, Uber spent $148 million trying to cover-up a 2016 data breach that gave hackers the private information of 57 million individuals, including 600,000 drivers-licenses, representing another egregious mishandling of user data on the part of platform businesses.

 

Due to the scope and frequency of these data breaches, consumers have begun to demonstrate more distrust towards companies that request access to their personal information.  A 2017 Pew survey found that 64 percent of Americans personally experienced a major data breach and just 25 percent believed businesses handle their sensitive information responsibly.  Pressure for legislative action has mounted in response to these fears, as several states have passed laws such as California’s Consumer Privacy Act, which mandates companies to inform consumers of what data they collect and who they share it with.  Still, however, the federal government has not passed any significant consumer protection bills to establish privacy rights and penalize data misuse.  Furthermore, people appear to continue using platforms even after these data breaches occur, as over 60 percent of respondents to a Hubspot survey following Facebook’s most recent breach claimed they would continue using the service as usual.

 

Although there appears to be limited incentive for platforms to improve their data privacy standards, the rise of secure blockchain-based applications as an alternative to existing intermediaries could provide the necessary motivation.  Blockchain technology allows for peer-to-peer interactions that are recorded on a decentralized, immutable public ledger.  Distributed or Decentralized Apps (“Dapps”) leverage this technology to create a platform interface that directly connects service providers and consumers without the governance of a centralized authority.  Unlike Uber or Airbnb, no singular third-party entity is necessary to establish trust in the purchases that occur on platform because blockchain technology utilizes advanced computing protocols to enforce contracts and maintain a record of transactions.  As a result, Dapps provide a similar function to existing intermediaries. In fact, their decentralized nature ensures a far less risk of compromising users’ private information.

 

Confidentiality of participant data is central to blockchain technology.  Although all agreements are filed in a public ledger, the records only refer to participants using their public key, which keeps their true identities confidential.  The smart contracts that govern interactions are also encrypted so they can be executed without revealing their underlying substantive information.  Blockchain networks are also far less susceptible to attack than the systems platform that businesses use to upload and process their users’ data.  For Dapps, there is no central point of attack for hackers to target since records are decentralized, and it is virtually impossible for anyone to modify or falsify transactions due to the complex computing processes used to construct the ledger.  Dapps’ lack of centralized control also ensures no underlying incentive to collect and share users’ private information with third parties, which is a legitimate concern given the actions of some of today’s most successful platform businesses.

 

Developers are already creating Dapps to rival traditional platform businesses.  As the Foundation for Economic Education reports, a blockchain based ride-sharing application called Arcade City launched to compete with Uber and Lyft in 2016 and has since expanded to 27 U.S. cities and over 155 countries. Beenest, Airbnb’s blockchain counterpart, was founded in 2018 and undercuts its main competitor’s commission prices on user transactions.

 

While these interfaces benefit from a lack of central authority with regards to protecting data, there are certainly disadvantages to decentralized platforms.  For instance, Dapps will struggle to limit the influence of bad actors who will be difficult to monitor given the encrypted nature of blockchain technology.  Accumulating vast amounts of personal data on users also allows platforms to enhance their curation algorithms, and Dapps will not be able to leverage this useful information.  Furthermore, decentralization often allows suppliers to set their own rates and accept various forms of payment which benefits them but may complicate the interface for consumers.

 

Even so, Dapps still pose a credible threat to platforms due to consumers’ growing concerns about their data privacy.  It is clear that many individuals have lost confidence in businesses that accumulate private information including many of today’s most influential platforms.  While many have continued to participate in these platforms despite data breaches, Dapps offer secure and functional alternatives that will likely attract portions of the user base.  As a result, these intermediaries will need to re-asses their data protection strategies in order to compete with blockchain technology’s superior data security.  Platforms may not be able to prevent 100 percent of data breaches, but they can improve the transparency with which they handle private information to foster more consumer trust.  Businesses can self-impose regulations like those specified in the California Consumer Protection Act which ensures the consumers receive full information about what data is collected and with whom the information is shared.  Instead of forcing users to concede permission to all of their information in order to access the interface, platforms can allow users to opt-in or out to specific parts of the agreement to accommodate individuals who care more about privacy.  Regardless of what specific actions platforms decide to take, the emergence of Dapps as competitors clearly raises the stakes for preventing another major data breach headline.

Online gambling was once thought to be dead.

Just six years ago, the domains of the world’s largest online poker platforms, Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars and Cereus were seized by the United States government for bank fraud and money laundering. The collapse of the premier online cardrooms spelled what appeared to be — at first glance — a kiss of death.

Yet, there is a new breath of life for online gambling. The growing use and adoption of cryptocurrencies represent a boon for online gambling, which is largely prohibited in the United States. The global online gambling market had an estimated value of $44.16 billion in 2016 with potential to grow to $81.71 billion by 2022, according to Berkshire Hathaway’s BusinessWire.

Online betting is illegal in the United States, “for the most part, under broad interpretations of both state and multiple federal laws,” according to a legal source referenced by Bloomberg Law in January 2018. In Washington state, playing online poker is even considered a felony. Additionally, in the United States, the use of cryptocurrencies to wager money in foreign online gambling platforms is likewise illegal. While online gambling is largely illegal for those in the United States, most major operators of online gambling platforms legally establish their operations in countries with more lenient regulations and laws.

Throughout the past year, cryptocurrencies have captured the curiosity and fascination of millions around the world, with tokens such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin all seeing growth rates of at least 10,000 percent in the last year. Additionally, the exchange and use of cryptocurrencies is completely legal in the United States. Furthermore, the blockchain technology underlying cryptocurrencies has fundamentally changed online gambling by providing three key advantages: privacy, transparency, and instantaneous transactions.

First, cryptocurrencies theoretically reduce the risk of identifying information being exposed, as the only information posted on the blockchain is the user’s cryptographically transformed address. Anonymity is an especially important reason why online sports betting increasingly use cryptocurrencies.

Second, gamblers may feel more confident about the integrity and transparency of their transactions. Every transaction using Bitcoin or Ethereum is published on the cryptocurrency’s blockchain. As a result, it is unduly impractical — if not impossible — to create fraudulent transactions on the blockchain, as all of the transactions before the theoretical fraudulent transaction must also be edited.

Finally, instant withdrawals and deposits appeal to operators of online gambling platforms. Once a wager is set, the website instantly pays out winnings or takes away losses from one’s cryptocurrency wallet. There is no need for a bank or financial services middleman, such as PayPal, to facilitate transactions.

As a result, online gambling platforms, ranging from poker to dice, have largely adopted cryptocurrencies.

The largest cryptocurrency dice game website, Primedice, has had a total of 2,229,232 Bitcoin wagered since its inception in May 2013. According to the website Coinmarketcap, Bitcoin’s value has jumped from $111.25 on May 2013, to a staggering $10,214 at the time of writing in January 2018. Although it is impractical to convert the amount of Bitcoin wagered on Primedice into US dollars, given the currency’s extreme price fluctuations, it is certain that some hundreds of millions of dollars have been processed on Primedice through the use of Bitcoin.

With all of these factors in mind, it may seem that cryptocurrencies are changing online gambling into a industry with incredible growth potential. However, that is not the case, as obstacles in the cryptocurrency market will likely stall growth in online gambling.

For one, regulation always looms in the background. This is due to the high potential for criminals to exploit cryptocurrencies and the anonymity they provide to commit illegal acts, such as money laundering and drug dealing. This has been a problem since the inception of cryptocurrencies, such as the case of the Silk Road drug trafficking network, which was shutdown by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2013. Additionally, there is the possibility that countries, such as the United States, with explicit laws against online gambling will regulate or restrict access to foreign gambling platforms.

Further, the difficulty of regulating cryptocurrency exchanges has caused many issues for governments. The use of a cryptocurrency exchange opens up the possibility of security breaches or abuse. When Bitcoin was first introduced, the world’s then-largest exchange, Mt. Gox, went insolvent due to the theft of approximately 850,000 Bitcoin, much of which has never been recovered. Internationally, some nations, such as China and South Korea, have declared intentions of regulating cryptocurrencies and gambling websites. In particular, China has banned an absolutely essential part of Ethereum, effectively spelling doom for the cryptocurrency.

Most importantly, cryptocurrencies lack stable, intrinsic value. The most common cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin, are all generated by computers solving mathematical problems. They do not hold any intrinsic value and unlike legal tender, are not backed by any government. The price volatility of cryptocurrencies is also a significant problem for gamblers. Just a month after reaching a peak price of $19,282.73 in mid-December 2017, Bitcoin’s value has fallen 48% at the time of writing in January 2018. Volatility can cause gamblers to lose the winnings that they made, due to reasons entirely out of their control. Further, high levels of volatility erode trust in the cryptocurrencies’ use as financial instruments.

In a short span of time, cryptocurrencies have rapidly changed the face of online gambling, an industry that has long been riddled with legal complications and security concerns. With the use of cryptocurrencies, online gambling platforms have seen higher levels of transparency, integrity and faster transaction speed. However, cryptocurrencies are not a cure-all, as they are suspect to the constant specter of unrestrained price volatility and government regulations.

Online gambling may be going all-in on cryptocurrencies, but cryptocurrencies are by no means its savior.

Neither the Dartmouth Business Journal nor the author condone online gambling.