Next on the Blockchain: Crowdfunding Death

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A new prediction market has been live on the Ethereum blockchain for less than three weeks, and already the death bets are rolling in. Up for wager on the Augur market are the fates of public figures like national leaders, celebrities and tech company CEOs. It’s controversial not just because some find it unseemly, but also because it could create incentives to kill.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with speculating on a person’s untimely demise; that’s the entire purpose of life insurance and the old pooled annuities called tontines. But the players in a prediction market are rarely all dispassionate observers. Short sellers in the stock market are motivated to drag down a company’s share price. Bettors in a “ghoul pool” prediction market have effectively created an assassination market.

An assassination market differs from traditional murder-for-hire in that unlimited wagers can be made against a potential target. The greater the odds stacked against a person’s death, the larger the incentive for a prospective assassin to take the opposite side and execute the outcome. This is not a new idea: In 1995, crypto-anarchist Jim Bell designed a system he called “Assassination Politics,” a prediction market where participants could anonymously contribute digital cash to bounty funds designated for the death of government officials. The idea has been launched multiple times on the dark web, but it’s unclear that any of these markets resulted in assassination.

Previous conceptions of such markets relied on centralized operators that could be identified and shut down. Because it uses the Ethereum blockchain, Augur exists as a decentralized application, replicated on thousands of computers around the world. Participants are pseudonymous, and payments are made in cryptocurrency. Even if the creators of Augur are prosecuted, the source code is freely available so that anyone can replicate the model. As a result, the platform is essentially unstoppable.

But don’t panic just yet. Any prospective assassin is unlikely to trawl prediction markets looking for a job; it wouldn’t even be good business. There are better ways to profit from advance knowledge of a death, and there’s a bloodless alternative as well.

The stock market provides far greater liquidity and noise to avoid tipping off the target in advance. And deaths move markets. Even rumors of deaths move markets. In 2008, CNN inadvertently spread a false report that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack, triggering a 10 percent decline in Apple’s share price. In 2013, the Associated Press Twitter account announced that President Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion at the White House. The market lost over $130 billion in stock value, then rebounded when AP confirmed that its account had been compromised and the report was false. In both these cases, no one was harmed in the making of fake news. But some people surely made money as the markets heaved.

When it comes to censorship-resistant markets, critics are quick to jump to the most abhorrent possible use cases. But despite an abundance of profitable opportunities, we don’t see a lot of high-profile assassinations. The truth is, there simply isn’t some massive pent-up demand for murder, languishing for want of a group buy. It’s possible that we could see a rise in milder tasteless markets — character assassination, for example. Instead of incentivizing the murder of a public figure, bet on an executive’s departure and then put out a bounty to escalate embarrassing tweets until the executive gets fired. Such campaigns already informally self-organize on social media.

Censorship-resistant markets don’t inherently generate new demand for terrible things; they simply make it easier to do what people already wanted to do.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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