After the Death of Net Neutrality, We Need a Decentralized Internet 0 177

Net neutrality died more quietly than expected. It’s been almost two months since the FCC’s ruling to make internet access vulnerable to corporate meddling, thanks to FCC chairman and Verizon advocate Ajit Pai. And not much seems to have changed on the web browsing citizen’s end. Major ISPs Comcast, Verizon and AT&T have all indicated that they have no plans to block or throttle traffic, or to prioritize paid content. So rest easy, dear ones. The sharks have promised not to bite.

Of course, that’s really no reason to celebrate. As of June 11th, “there is nothing legally preventing companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from arbitrarily censoring entire categories of apps, sites and online services, or charging Internet users expensive new fees to access them,” notes Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit advocating for digital equality.

Fight for the Future is just one organization working for a free digital world. All around, and in part thanks to the FCC’s ruling, people are switching on to the notion that open connectivity should be a right and not a privilege. And some folks are getting a crazy idea: if we can’t have net neutrality, we may just have to build another internet.

Building Our Own Internet

That’s exactly what people have been doing in Detroit. To combat the emergence of a “digital class system,” and in response to the scarcity and prohibitive costs of ISP connection, residents and volunteer members of the Equitable Internet Initiative, or EII, are building their own internet infrastructure.

Over on the Pala Reservation in Southern California, meanwhile, indigenous communities are tired of waiting for a connection. So they’re taking matters into their own hands and repurposing unused analog TV channels to broadcast their own free and neutral internet across the rez. They call it Tribal Digital Village.

Efforts like the EII and Tribal Digital Village are proving that we can take control of our connectivity and decouple it from the stratification of economic privilege.

Reinventing the Internet Altogether

Radical community efforts to build DIY networks are inspiring and powerful. But perhaps we can go even farther. The internet still works on an old model that has plenty of room for improvement. Let’s say you’re sitting in a public library, messaging your zine collaborator across the table. There’s no direct internet connection between your phones, so your message has to go up into the nebulous cloud of internet before it bounces back down to their phone. Not entirely efficient, considering they’re sitting right there.

If you had a direct connection, the signal could just travel across the table. That would be possible using a mesh network, like the one proposed by RightMesh. In their mesh network model, every device becomes a hotspot in a decentralized connective network.

Why volunteer your device as a public hotspot? Because you get tokens, of course. This is blockchain! Like the EII and Tribal Digital Village, this is a cooperative and participatory system that relies on no centralized authority (like a corporate ISP). Everyone volunteers their device as a hotspot, gets rewarded with tokens, and just like that, we have a decentralized internet.

Without the need for ISPs, we would be free from Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T. We could run open-armed through the proverbial fields of digital wildflowers. The possibilities of this go well beyond urbanite convenience. A global mesh network could bring internet connection to any part of the globe where there are phones—even phones not connected to wifi. In this system, the phones create the wifi.

An Off-the-Grid Internet

RightMesh’s stated goal is to “connect the next billion people and lift 100 million out of poverty.” They claim to be the first P2P network that requires neither infrastructure nor network connectivity to operate.

That said, they’re not alone. Blockmesh is doing something similar. Moeco’s ‘global IoT connectivity platform’ uses mesh network principles for IoT gadgets. And Open Garden allows ISP customers to ‘sell’ your underutilized connection (extra bandwidth at home, or unused data from your mobile plan) to your neighbors for tokens.

All these ideas are packed with possibility. But the point is, with the grassroots efforts of groups like the EII and Tribal Digital Village, and with blockchain innovation pushing the definition of the internet forward, we’re looking at a future where the connection is universal, accessible, fast, cheap, self-generating, decentralized and off the grid. Someday soon we might be thanking the FCC for spurring these advances.

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A tribal member of the Choctaw Nation, Brian grew up in the Silicon valley under the technological mentorship of Steve Wozniak. He's lived, worked and traveled all over the world, and now writes and makes films in the Pacific Northwest.

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Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Are Bringing Transparency and Verifiability to Loyalty Programs 1 4662

New blockchain apps using cryptocurrency as rewards and cash back have the potential to improve the loyalty space. Read on to learn how.

Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, and Loyalty Programs

The International Council of Shopping Centers reports that the loyalty space grows by about 30% every year, with 85% of consumers belonging to at least one loyalty program, circulating $300 billion between them annually. With so many users and so much money circulating through loyalty programs, adding blockchain-related features and cryptocurrency mechanics would help companies offload complexity and interact with crucial partners and customers, taking stress off of core loyalty programs.

Blockchain technology would also allow companies with large balance sheet liabilities stemming from redemption bottlenecks to open up redemption options, widening these bottlenecks to increase revenues. Lastly, incorporating blockchain tech into loyalty programs would allow partners to integrate loyalty programs seamlessly regardless of their size, helping them craft trendy offers more easily and eliminate back-end redemption problems.

The largest problem loyalty programs face today is a dual one: they are being used at an all-time high rate, while the total number of unredeemed points (and the cost of managing them) is growing. The average US household today participates in an average of 29 different loyalty programs, according to the 2015 Colloquy Loyalty Census. New accounting standards, however, state that revenue attributed to loyalty points must be deferred until the redemption conditions are met.

With so many overlapping and often confusing rules and regulations for redeeming points, rewards, and cash back in so many places, companies operating loyalty programs are losing money from consumers’ analysis paralysis. People aren’t redeeming to their full potential due to the large and confusing web of guidelines associated with doing so; most people don’t have the bandwidth to understand all of them.

Blockchain, the distributed ledger technology behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, could improve loyalty programs with enhanced features like instant rewards redemption and loyalty point currency exchanges, centralizing them and making them more accountable and transparent. Blockchains improve transaction verifiability, integrity, and transparency by grouping transactions into blocks confirmed by a wide public network, or chain, of participants (hence the term “blockchain”). Afterwards, every ledger in the blockchain is updated to reflect the new transaction(s).

This is an improvement upon centralized databases, where intermediaries with full control over databases and the data they contain create, read, update, and even delete data as single points of failure. In contrast, blockchains rely on a network of people to verify transactions by validating and writing new data. Past entries never change, and new entries are written to update the state of past entries. This secures and strengthens the record of each one through consensus.

In the end, blockchains allow for decentralized control while traditional databases use centralized control to manage data, which is more fallible since a database administrator constitutes a single point of failure for everyone’s data security, were the security infrastructure to fail. On a blockchain, there is no single point of failure, improving data security and integrity.

Loyalty programs that grouped point currencies, rewards redemption options, and rules into one digital wallet would encourage companies to cooperate with one another to create shared value, since siloing loyalty programs over multiple blockchains creates saturation and detracts from consumer value. Instead, companies could co-create loyalty programs in partnership with blockchain platform developers to centralize information people need in order to easily reconcile all of the point options, redemption systems and point exchanges. This would help people make quicker and smarter decisions on which loyalty programs are best for their shopping habits and preferences. This would also make points and rewards redemption easier and more consistent, allowing consumers to redeem more rewards and points.

For businesses, blockchain tech would enable greater revenues by alleviating the balance sheet bottleneck created by unredeemed points. It would also let businesses explore new loyalty program models incorporating large and small business partners, allowing them to integrate seamlessly with loyalty programs. This could help businesses craft popular offers more easily and make it easier on businesses to distribute points since the entire process would be outsourced to the blockchains their programs were on. Blockchains’ decentralized nature allows greater verifiability and transparency of points distribution and rewards redemption by a wide network, freeing up back-end costs for other needs.

Blockchains aren’t infallible. With so many out there today, creating new blockchains on which to operate loyalty programs could create program saturation, detracting from loyalty programs’ ability to deliver value to customers. In addition, the blockchain-based transaction layer between consumers and loyalty program operators would, on paper, generate a small per-transaction cost for transactions associated with these loyalty programs, which could grow over time. Customer data could become available to other participants in the loyalty network, or to competitors. And, rewards currency could devalue in what would be an open marketplace for trading points.

The most basic way for companies to eliminate these risks is to take a ground-floor role in structuring commercial agreements and partnerships to protect the core components—currency value, customer data and relationships, and transaction costs—of their loyalty programs when creating or choosing a blockchain platform to run their loyalty programs.

Blockchain apps using cryptocurrency to power rewards and cash back have great potential to deliver new value to consumers, such as passive income, savings, and compound interest to help them buy more with less. This is because cryptocurrencies—not only Bitcoin, but also Ether, Litecoin, Ripple and others—are just as much assets as digital money with which to buy and sell things. Since blockchains are at the heart of many cryptocurrencies, loyalty programs can use them to turn everyday shoppers into investors, giving them a single place to redeem all of their rewards and get cash back in the form of crypto, creating more convenience and more value. Several disruptive use cases, such as BitRewards, FluzFluz, and Rewards.com are already putting these ideas into action.

Use Cases

BitRewards is a rewards network that works with token holders to confirm liquidity contracts between itself and partner cryptocurrency exchanges, allowing the platform to deliver rewards in cryptocurrency. Operating on the Ethereum blockchain, the BitRewards network uses a distributed system of nodes, or cryptocurrency-holding professionals operating on the platform, to fund rewards through their cryptocurrency exchanges through smart contracts that allow rewards to flow through the system, creating a liquid system of cryptocurrency rewards.

FluzFluz operates a global co-op network between merchants and consumers on JP Morgan’s Quorum blockchain, letting consumers build their own shopper networks and make passive cash back-based cryptocurrency income, both when shopping and when members of their networks shop. Each co-op member group (up to a maximum of 65,535 people) shares cash back internally, with 50% going to the purchaser and the rest being split equally among the members of the co-op. The FLUZ token is tradable for cash back rewards and gift cards, and helps fund network transparency and lower transaction costs.

Maurice Harary, Founder of Fluz Fluz, says, “A good leader creates followers, whereas a great leader creates other leaders. The global cash back rewards co-op technology at FluzFluz lets average consumers empower others to become influencers, grow the rewards network, and increase each member’s buying power and cash back potential as a result.”

Rewards.com recently incorporated cryptocurrency into its online rewards platform as well. Since it has thousands of retail partners across the country, its new RWRD token is redeemable at any one of them. By incorporating it as the platform’s core store of value with its enormous network of partners, Rewards.com is helping to put cryptocurrency into the wallets of more mainstream consumers by powering everything from cash back rewards to discounts on its platform.

These are all examples of ways in which blockchain technology and cryptocurrency are already beginning to impact the loyalty industry. Their founders have so much confidence in their products that they’ve all opened themselves up to questions on platforms like Telegram and Slack to help refine their products.

Looking Ahead

Blockchains and cryptocurrency have the potential to reshape the loyalty industry, helping consumers use multiple rewards programs across stores, making rewards transactions securer and more transparent, and centralizing cryptocurrency rewards programs in one place. Verifiability is an important part of this equation as well. Blockchain’s decentralized and transparent nature can allow loyalty programs to be used in one place and be open source. That adds accountability to these programs, since everyone monitoring a loyalty program’s blockchain would be responsible for verifying points, rewards redemption, and cash back transactions.

How Will Blockchain Tech Impact Healthcare Investors? 0 206

Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase, three economic juggernauts, announced they’re teaming up to tackle healthcare, a sector of the economy that’s proven elusive for presidents and private-sector reform efforts alike.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos weighed in on healthcare costs, commenting that “reducing health care’s burden on the economy while improving outcomes for employees and their families would be worth the effort.”

No question, Bezos is right. But radical reform in the U.S. healthcare system might not come from these massive, centralized global players. Instead, the world’s newest transformative technology could hold the answers and affect stock prices across the board in one of the tallest pillars of the economy.

Blockchain in healthcare, blockchain everywhere?

A 2016 Deloitte study offered up that “Blockchain technology has the potential to transform health care, placing the patient at the center of the healthcare ecosystem and increasing the security, privacy, and interoperability of health data.”

Blockchain, which creates a decentralized, autonomous network of trust to share and record information, offers myriad benefits for both patients and care providers: a secure exchange of information without intermediaries, lower costs, secure patient identities, ease of sharing real-times updates across parties; smart contracts; and secure longitudinal health data for each patient.

As Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Jaime Diamond know, the healthcare market is massive, offering a significant opportunity for emerging companies to reduce costs, improve care, and deliver better outcomes for patients. Right now, healthcare in the United States comprises 17% of annual GDP with an aging population providing a consistent tailwind.

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) says there is “massive untapped potential” to change the healthcare sector for the better through blockchain technology. For one, Blockchain tech can secure HIPAA-compliant data sharing across networks. A number of use cases have cropped up as a result. In a comment on the opportunity tech reporter Mike Butcher said illustratively that a blockchain record could “follow you around so you could avoid yet another dose of radiation because your record said you’d already had 50 head X-rays.” Moreover a raft of applications emerged between smart contracts, data tokenization, and blockchain combinations with AI and machine learning.

Blockchain smart contracts will automate transactions and reduce inefficiency,” says entrepreneur Adryenne Ashley. “Using smart contracts to track disease, cause and effect, treatment and results will be critical to learning and understanding how each patient responds.” Having that data automatically written to the blockchain eliminates delay in data analysis and creates a bridge between practitioners and researchers, leading to cures.

Blockchain companies with tokens will introduce new commerce and incentive systems. And combining blockchain technology with advancements in AI and machine learning will provide new insights and further improve care. In 2018, several new blockchain startups are launching across various areas in healthcare, representing some of the best applications of the technology to accomplish those goals.

Big Medicine taps into data

The fragmented, inaccessible nature of current electronic medical record systems alone millions. John Halamka, the chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, developed a secure-data exchange, MedRed, and advises another blockchain company, Simply Vital Health, as it builds a platform to streamline healthcare data management and reduce the costs of bundled payments. In the Harvard Business Review, Halamka wrote that blockchain protocol can “standardize secure data exchange in a less burdensome way than previous approaches.”

The rest of the healthcare industry is following Halamka’s lead. 16% of healthcare executives surveyed by IBM have “solid plans” to implement a commercial blockchain solution this year, with 56% planning to do so by 2020.

Supply chain

IBM, one of the corporate behemoths investing in blockchain technology, sees supply chain management as one of the key areas where blockchain can make an immediate improvement. The technology will enable “more secure and transparent monitoring of transactions” which will reduce time, cost, and human error.

Gem, one of the early companies to watch in this space, has a supply chain management software platform that “boosts the ‘collective intelligence,’ or Data IQ, from previously siloed data” allowing organizations to increase efficiency, accuracy, and speed of supply chain transactions. ShipChain, too, backed by DHL’s former CEO, launched its platform to tidy up the fractured transportation and shipping industry including medical freight and hazardous materials.

Tackling fraud

A favorite target among the federal enforcement crowd–myself included–Blockchain technology could also tackle the massive amount of fraud in the healthcare market. A 2012 study by the Centres for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the RAND Corporation estimated that fraud accounted for $98 billion of total Medicare and Medicaid spending and up to $272 billion across the entire U.S. healthcare system. Through secure, immutable records, blockchain ledgers could be one of the best tools to cut down of fraud, from false reimbursements to theft of patient records to gain access to prescription drugs.

What’s in store for 2018

The story of 2017 was the meteoric rise of cryptocurrencies with plenty of bearishness coming from marquee investors. That said even after a big correction, the biggest cryptocurrencies are up thousands of percentage points over the last twelve months. The bigger story is unfolding away from volatility, as blockchain companies look to solve big problems in healthcare. Rest assured that from an investment perspective the likes of Buffett and Bezos will take notice.

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