How Bitcoin Tech Could Make It Easier to Switch Emails

Ethereum reckons it'll soon be easier to emigrate than switch email providers—but decentralisation could fix that.

Nicole Kobie

​Image: aztekphoto/Shutterstock

One of the worst online chores is switching to a new email address—but one Bitcoin expert thinks it could soon become so difficult that it'd be easier to emigrate to a new country.

That's according to Vitalik Buterin, founder of decentralised app Ethere​um, who discussed the problems of web middlemen at FutureFest in London last weekend.

"Migrating from one platform to another is hard and only going to get harder," he said, explaining that he's tried to shift from one email provider to another, and even runs an out-of-office auto responder, but still gets messages to the original account years later. "It's hard to switch."

And the lock-in is only going to get worse, not least as email addresses are increasingly used as identity tokens online. "By 2025 I think—if not now—it'll be harder to change the digital platforms that you're using than it'll be to change your country of residence," he said.

Vitalik Buterin. Image: ​Philip McMaster/Flickr

That's a problem if you want switch to a new provider for any reason, including protest. "When people complain about human rights abuses perpetrated by governments, one thing you might reply is 'well if you don't like your government, move to a different one'—and people seem to be not perfectly satisfied with that response," Buterin said, rather sardonically. "Well, it's going to be even harder to just move to a different digital platform than it is to just move to a different country."

And there may be reasons to protest by shifting platforms. Back in 2010, PayPal ​stopped processing payments to Wikileaks, but there were few options other than Bitcoin to keep the flow of donations going.

It's a problem that blockchain enthusiasts such as Buterin are trying to fix. The blockchain is the public ledger that tracks all bitcoin transactions. It sounds dull, but it's effectively the tech engine that powers the cryptocurrency, and an idea that could be used to decentralise other web applications—that's Ethereum​'s goal, at least.

"A blockchain is this magically decentralised computer that's going to keep running your programme faithfully for as long as it exists. You have no ability to change it. Wouldn't it be a bit safer if we had our identities on a platform like that?" Buterin said.

"Building a decentralised service is the strongest way for an application developer to precommit not to be a jerk."

The idea is that blockchain tech could be used as the basis for a distributed email system or as an identity system, meaning you could keep hold of either without having to hand over control to a third-party. That means you wouldn't need to worry about losing emails because Google decides to shut Gmail, for instance, and if you wanted to change your email address, it'd be simple to do because you'd control it. It also means you wouldn't be identified online by your Facebook or Google login, but by the blockchain; your identity would be in your hands, not those of corporations.

There's another angle: Ether​eum wants to build web apps on top of the blockchain. In that case, an app or service couldn't be shut down because it was bought out or ran out of funding—because it'd all be decentralised. It would also avoid the kind of problems developers had when Twitter changed the rules with its API, limiting access—the structure of the blockchain means everyone would have to agree to the changes.

"Building a decentralised service is the strongest way for an application developer to precommit not to be a jerk and not to shut down forever," Buterin said.

However, he warned that it's not so easy as dumping all of our "base layers" onto blockchains, appealing as it is to "get rid of the evil middlemen." Buterin noted that there's some value in the tech companies that stand between users interacting directly. With credit card systems, they protect us from scammers by allowing us to reverse payments; in the case of Uber, they make it easier to book across multiple cab drivers.

"I think the journey of decentralised tech is complicated," he admitted, saying it will take some effort to find out where decentralisation works and doesn't, and what compromises there are. Still, if it makes flipping email accounts easier than emigrating, it's worth a look.