Towards An International Court of Smart Contract Arbitration

Firms involved in international commerce routinely contract that disputes are to be resolved by private courts of arbitration such as the International Court of Arbitration, the London Court of International Arbitration or the Singapore International Arbitration Center. These courts of arbitration compete for clients and thus have an incentive to resolve disputes fairly, quickly and inexpensively. Courts compete, for example, to provide arbiters who are experts not simply in the law but in the relevant area of commerce. The New York Convention of 1958 says that private arbitration decisions will be enforced by the national courts of any of the 159 signatories; thus private arbitration leverages national enforcement but is otherwise not tethered to national law (e.g. in US see, Mitsubishi v. Soler Chrysler, National Oil v. Libyan Sun). Over time private courts of international arbitration have developed a system of law that transcends nations, an anational law–this is the new lex mercatoria.

I propose that courts analogous to the courts of arbitration that govern international commerce be created to govern smart contracts in virtual space. Arbitration of smart contracts will develop a new private law that will evolve to meet the needs of virtual commerce, a true lex cryptographia. At first, it might seem contradictory to advocate for courts of smart contracts and the development of lex cryptographia. Isn’t the whole point of smart contracts that no courts or lawyers are needed? Similarly, lex cryptographia is usually understood to refer to the smart contracts themselves–code is law–rather than to law governing such contracts. In fact, it is neither desirable nor possible to divorce smart contracts from law.

Smart contracts execute automatically but only simple contracts such as those involving escrow are really self-enforcing. Most contracts, smart or dumb, involve touchstones with the real world. Canonical examples such as the smart contract that lets you use an automobile so long as the rent has been paid illustrate the potential for disputes. Bugs in the code? Disputes over the quality of the car? What happens when a data feed is disputed or internet service is disrupted? Smart contracts applied to the real world are a kind of digital rights management with all of DRMs problems and annoyances.

Some of these problems can be dealt with online using decentralized mechanisms. But we don’t yet know which decentralized mechanisms are robust or cost-effective. Moreover, when marveling at the wisdom of crowds we should not forget the wisdom of experts. Nick Szabo once remarked that if contract law was suddenly forgotten it would take hundreds of years to recover the embedded wisdom. Contract law, for example, is filled with concepts like mistake, misrepresentation, duress, negligence and intention that are not easily formalized in code. Contract law is a human enterprise. And the humans who write contracts want law with terms like negligence precisely because these terms fill in for gaps which cannot be filled in and formalized in contracts let alone in code.

I am enthusiastic about smart contracts on blockchains. Smart contracts will significantly reduce transaction costs and thus let people create valuable, new private orderings. But it will be more profitable to integrate law and code than to try to replace law with code. Integration will require new ways of thinking. The natural language version of a contract–what the parties intend to agree to–may not map precisely to the coded version. Arbiters will be called in to adjudicate and thus will have to be experts in code as well as in law. Smart contracts can be made by anonymous parties who may want a dispute resolved not just privately but anonymously. Smart contracts can be designed with escrow and multisignatory authority so arbiters will also become decision enforcers. All of these issues and many more will have to be understood and new procedures and understandings developed. The competitive market process will discover novel uses for smart contracts and the competitive market process among arbiters will discover novel law. Law will adjust to business practice and business practice to law.

In short, the best way to create a vital new lex cryptographia is through competitive, private arbitration built on the model that already governs international commerce.


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