Oct 9, 2018
Getting Married and Divorced on the Blockchain
“Life is not eternal and death can separate us, but the Blockchain is forever.” - David Mondrus and Joyce Bayo on their blockchain wedding
Blockchain Marriage is Forever
A blockchain is a permanent, publicly distributed ledger that verifies transactions, records events and is naturally resistant to the modification of data. Every new transaction creates a block that includes a cryptographic hash and timestamp that is part of a growing chain of verified information. There are many different blockchains and each is used and programmed differently. Some technologists estimate that blockchain’s disruptive technology could revolutionize supply chain management, automation, big data, healthcare, marriage, and currency; others go so far as to call it the essential technological building block for a fourth industrial revolution.
Whether or not the most optimistic predictions are correct, today the blockchain offers users a clear and simple way to perform contractual verification. A smart contract is a digital agreement between two or more persons that can be accessed by scanning the blockchain at any point in the future. Smart contracts have already found widespread use in trade finance because they can settle transactions without the need of a third party for verification. If the blockchain really is forever, then etching marriage contracts into its fabric is a cheap and innovative way to access the nascent ecosystem of cryptographic technologies.
The first couple to get married on the blockchain was David Mondrus and Joyce Bayo in 2014. With famed Austrian school economist Jeffrey Tucker presiding over the wedding, the couple engraved their nuptials on the Bitcoin blockchain. Speaking to Tucker after the wedding, Mondrus was blunt: “Why should the government have anything to say about who I marry or how?”
Till Death Do Us Part
“If someone loves someone they have a right to marry.” - Mildred Loving
The tradition of English common law defines marriage as a private, voluntary agreement between a man and a woman. In the modern age, some nations have amended this law to include same-sex couples. The State, as such, plays an instrumental role in defining the institution of marriage and implementing the legal structure that regulates a union between two partners.
State-issued marriage licenses were rare in the United States until the late 19th century, when marriage became a new cultural battleground. Federal and local governments mobilized to limit or deny civil equality for women, African Americans, and homosexual couples.
In the Jim Crow South courts kept interracial unions at bay by arguing that prohibition of interracial marriage and sex was not a violation of the equal protection clause. At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Richard Loving, a white man, married Mildred Jeter, a black woman. For this, the state of Virginia sentenced them both to a year in prison for violating anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriage and sex. In 1967, the Supreme Court overturned the prohibition of interracial marriage throughout the United States.
Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing the unanimous opinion of the court defined marriage as “one of the basic civil rights of man,” and “fundamental to our very existence and survival. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”
In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act which defined marriage as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court overturned the restriction of same-sex marriages in the United States by declaring that prohibition violated the equal clause protection. Today, in 87% of countries throughout the world, same-sex marriage is still illegal.
The involvement of governments in the private, voluntary transactions of citizens is everpresent. As individuals challenge the legal and ethical tyrannies of state governance, the question arises: what right does a government inherently possess to regulate the legality of a voluntary contract based on love? Furthermore, what right does a church or religion have to regulate the moral frameworks of what love constitutes in the 21st century?
“We don’t need any state or church to validate our marriage.” – Edurne Lolnaz & Mayal de Borniol
A blockchain marriage can be as flexible as the owners wish. When billionaire Brock Pierce wed his wife Rose on the blockchain last year, they created a contract that could be renewed, changed, or dissolved annually. While the contract does not hold legal weight in the United States, observers see upside in the blockchain’s immutable features. As the Creative Director of Smart Vows’s Alex Gruz notes, “A marriage certificate is just a paper that can get buried in the clutter in your home. Even worse, it can get lost or tampered with. With a marriage smart contract, that concern is a thing of the past.”
In Washoe County, Nevada the Recorder’s Office has been working with the blockchain startup Titan Seal to implement marriage certificates on the Ethereum blockchain. Today, when a couple gets married in Nevada, the process can take days of waiting for verification and cost the couple a fee for delivery. By utilizing blockchain technology, officials are promising an instant, cheap, paperless verification model that could be in a couple’s email inbox within minutes.
Estonia has been at the forefront of a new borderless standard that allows any human the ability to register as an e-resident of Estonia through an organization called BitNation. BitNation aims to establish a virtual country that is borderless and made permanent by the immutability of blockchain technology. Through BitNation, people can prove their cyber citizenship, found corporations and notarize documents including marriage certificates.
On December 1, 2015, self-described “glomads” Edurne Lolnaz and Mayel de Bornio used BitNation’s SmartVows system to establish their virtual marriage certificate within Estonia’s e-residency program. In July of this year, Nicole Zhu and Daniel Onggunhao used the decentralized application Forevermore to code a virtual marriage certificate on the Ethereum blockchain. Having married in several different countries along their travels, the couple saw the blockchain as an opportunity to create a permanent, global transaction that could enshrine their vows forever. Only two months later, their marriage has been witnessed by more than 16,000 Ethereum nodes throughout the world.
Marriage isn’t the only example of coding love onto the blockchain. In every blockchain transaction there is also an option to include text which has led to a growing number of love letters being etched into the memory of the blockchain. Eternitywall.it is a company that promises to enshrine “messages lasting forever” on the Bitcoin blockchain. In 2015, Eternity Wall notarized over 1,000 documents, including messages of love, faith, memory, and play. You can see a running log of documents printed onto the blockchain by Eternity Wall at their website (https://eternitywall.it/). (A particularly infamous love letter to Instagram model Dayah Dover can be seen on block #448064 of the Bitcoin blockchain).
“Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years.” - Simone Signoret
In the world of antiquity, an Oracle was a person who provided wisdom and prophetic accounts of the future. In the world of blockchain, new oracles are needed to act as arbiters that can validate or absolve smart contracts based on however their value parameters were set. The need for such an arbiter, also known as the “Oracle Problem,” raises the question of just how “smart” are smart contracts? According to programmer Jimmy Song, smart contracts really aren’t that smart at all.
Song suggests that the actual smartness of a smart contract does not derive from any real intelligence but from the extreme precision that accompanies a computer network. These contracts are written into a computer ecosystem and then later reviewed and executed based simply off the express conditions of the contract. As such, they take no account of extenuating circumstances or what Song defines as the “spirit” of law. Kate Sills has since argued that Song’s critique is misplaced because it assumes that smart contracts must be fully trustless to be valuable when that is not actually the case.
Smart contracts have existed in theory since at least 1995 when cryptographer Nick Szabo published an article titled “smart contracts” for the tech magazine Entropy. But it was only in the past year or so, with the incredible rise of Ethereum, that smart contracts have become a buzzword in the cryptography community. Ethereum, and its founder Vitalik Buterin, took the simple scope of smart contracts and built a Turing-complete system that allows for any user to create a more complex contract than what could be produced on the Bitcoin blockchain. But with greater complexity also comes glaring security concerns.
Complex smart contracts of the sort that could judge and execute a marriage contract based on the social and economic vows embedded within are difficult to write and even more difficult to secure and enforce. Because the onus of writing these smart contracts lie with the coders themselves (many of whom do not have the legal or technical knowledge needed to make a robust contract), holes in the code can easily lead to security flaws. Even more puzzling is devising a system that can review and critique a disputed contract.
Today, we leave those critiques up to courts, but what if smart contracts and the blockchain could perform a similar function based on the power of community instead of legal or religious authorities? During medieval times, Christians often married outside of the church and their marriages did not need to be officiated by priests or State functionaries. But if a marriage is “hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years,” then how do we determine if those contractual threads have woven together to create the hoped for fabric?
Augur and Gnosis are two cryptocurrencies attempting to find a solution to the “oracle problem.” While Gnosis hopes programmers will find an open source method to resolve this problem in the future, Augur is researching and developing a decentralized solution that allows token holders to “vote on the truth” to establish verification of an event or result. Perhaps an oracle for a smart contract could be a group or council of token holders with the ability to establish truth in relation to the contract’s standard.
Let’s imagine Mary and Jill utilize a blockchain contract for marriage. A group of witnessing peers could each hold tokens and be called upon to cast a vote on the maturation of the contract. If Mary cheats on Jill or if Jill doesn’t meet key criteria established in the marriage contract, a vote could be called for and the couple’s peers would have the ability to use their tokens to vote on voiding or amending the contract. In this way, a community of informed voters outside the legal structure of governments could confirm or deny the contractual obligations of a married couple.
“Blockchain is not just a technological revolution, it is primarily a socioeconomic revolution.” – Thomas Backlund
The great promise of Nakamoto’s original blockchain was that it could provide an in depth, accessible, trust environment that lies beyond the control of the modern State. Though the term “blockchain” has become a buzzword associated with product-less startups and pie-in-the-sky dreamers, the formidable strength of the blockchain lies in its ability to produce mechanisms that promote individual liberty.
Fashion icon and former tennis star Björn Borg saw this very opportunity when his company recently introduced “Marriage Unlocked,” a digital notary that allows same-sex couples the opportunity to get married on the blockchain. Switzerland residents Sybille and Alexandria (last names withheld) were the first to get married through Borg’s service. Because it is illegal to marry someone of the same-sex in Switzerland, Sybille and Alexandria turned to the internet to make their vows permanent. In the promotional video for Marriage Unblocked, one woman speaks of how the State used marriage to turn her and others into “second-class citizens.”
Another notable blockchain marriage was between Russian couple Vasily Lifanovsky and Alla Tkachenko, who were the first to wed on the blockchain in their home country. Their marriage was performed on the Ethereum blockchain and included a prenuptial agreement that stipulated, among other things, a division of chores, time spent dating per week, and frequency of shopping. Other couples have chosen to encode instructions on what should be done in the event of death or divorce.
For those living on the fringes of what society deems an acceptable relationship, the blockchain provides an innovative way to inscribe your love. Users could hypothetically marry multiple partners or even things as they wish. Nothing stops a person from marrying a car, a building, or a group of people. A recent study from BYU suggested that there are up to 50,000 polygamist relationships in the United States and the blockchain could be a useful tool for those looking to challenge the illegal status of their love.
With the estimated cost of a modern marriage at a staggering $25,000, many couples also see an economic advantage in coding their marriage certificate on the blockchain. And dissolving those marriages becomes less expensive as well given the excessive cost of a traditional divorce. A blockchain marriage can expedite the cost and time associated with both of these and provide a simple framework for updating the contract as each party sees fit over time.
Though the legal ramifications of utilizing a blockchain ecosystem as a means to marry are non-existent, the innovative approach to quickly and easily pronounce a union between two or more people might ultimately require nations to reevaluate the institution all together. With blockchain increasingly seen as simply another asset in investment portfolios, extending the technology to the social realms of life could be the next step in preserving the original anti-authoritartian goals of the blockchain.
How Smart are Smart Contracts?, Building Tomorrow Podcast
Smart Contracts Aren’t Trustless nor Should They Be, written by Kate Sills