What is The Block? Main technical features.

The Block is a fully decentralised e-commerce marketplace, designed for privacy and low fees. It takes the form of a standalone app based on Ethereum’s smart contracts and uses the ETH currency for all payments except merchant listings. As a global application with minimal technical requirements for users, this is free trade at its most free.

BitBoost’s aim is to facilitate truly free trade on a global scale. Building on the work of almost three years, The Block is their solution: a totally peer-to-peer e-commerce experience, without unnecessary costs, geographical limitations or arbitrary restrictions.

Fully peer-to-peer solution

As a downloadable app that connects to the Ethereum blockchain, The Block relies on no centralised website or other service by design (the developers’ Ethereum node can be used for convenience, but is not necessary). This entirely decentralised approach means that there is no controlling party limiting trade, restricting payments or collecting users data.

Unlike traditional e-commerce companies, there are no massive server farms supporting the platform; this functionality has been outsourced to the blockchain. Consequently, these savings can be passed on to users and there is no case for imposing fees, advertising, collecting/selling personal information, and so on, to pay business costs. It also means that The Block will never go offline, since there is no single point of failure.

Payments

The Block takes the form of a downloadable app based on the Ethereum blockchain platform. For a seamless payment experience, it features an integrated Ether wallet. Almost all payments are made in ETH, which is a well-known and very popular currency. ETH rivals bitcoin for its trading volumes and liquidity, and confirmation times are significantly faster than bitcoin’s 10-minute blocks. All items will be purchased by consumers for ETH, and escrow fees will also be arranged in ETH. The only exception to ETH payments is for merchant listing fees. To create a viable revenue model for investors, these will be payable in the BitBoost Token (BBT), which will be sold at crowdsale. A flat fee of around $1 in BBT will be charged per item.

The Block’s internal wallet will be created from a user-generated password. Private keys will be stored encrypted, and on the user’s machine – no keys are held by the BitBoost team or third parties. To fund the wallet, users can send funds from an external wallet (or an exchange), or they can use the built-in ShapeShift integration to convert other cryptocurrencies on-the-fly. This still requires some familiarity with cryptocurrency, although recent developments have made it safer and more convenient to buy bitcoins from an exchange than ever before. Nevertheless, BitBoost expects to integrate direct fiat-to-crypto solutions in the future, when these become available and their reliability and safety have been fully established.

No blockchain download is necessary to operate The Block, though users can connect via a local Ethereum node if they prefer for additional privacy. This also allows them to conduct offline transactions, which will be processed when they come online again.

‘Registration’ and use

The BitBoost team created The Block out of an awareness of the shortcomings of the existing e-commerce model. This is dominated by large corporations such as Amazon and eBay. These have significant costs, including personnel, offices and server hosting. As a result, they not only impose relatively high charges on their users, in the form of commission fees for sales (which have to be passed onto customers). They also collect information for the purposes of advertising, which has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years. Online advertising is now highly intrusive, and the harvesting of personal data is endemic, extensive and often takes place without the user’s explicit consent.

The Block does not require any personal information for users to access its services. No email addresses are collected as a condition of registration/use. Merchants and customers create their own aliases when they begin using the platform. This can be anything – a name, an Ethereum address, even a random string of characters. BitBoost does not send messages to anyone as a matter of policy, and the absence of user information collected means there are few channels by which to do so anyway. Whilst merchants will need to upload images for their products, these can be hosted on free, private web services such as imgur.com. This functionality is built into The Block for convenience.

Communication

Security is a paramount concern for BitBoost, since any leakage of information could compromise the privacy of The Block. HTTPS will be exclusively used for all external services – for example, the ShapeShift integration that enables customers to pay in any supported currency. This avoids the possibility of a man-in-the-middle (MitM) attack, whereby a hacker places himself in between the source and destination of the information being sent, intercepting it before passing it on to its intended recipient (perhaps unchanged, perhaps tampered with). Tor integration is planned for a later iteration of The Block for additional security.

All communication is encrypted using a session key that is generated when an item is purchased. That is, a new key is generated for each interaction and the old one discarded; keys are not reused. This one-time key approach is more secure than using a single key, since in the unlikely circumstances that a key falls into the wrong hands it will be useless in accessing future interactions.

User experience

The brief but remarkable history of cryptocurrency has shown that it is not enough to have a decentralised platform that offers fundamental advantages over the existing centralised equivalents. Users will not switch unless it is easy for them to do so, generally proving satisfied with familiar solutions until they are forced to change or the benefits far outweigh the time and effort of trying something new.

BitBoost believe that the cost and privacy benefits inherent in The Block offer not just incremental improvements but a qualitatively better e-commerce solution. However, this has to be matched with a comparable UX if customers and merchants are to make the effort to switch. E-commerce platforms such as Amazon and eBay offer extremely polished user experiences that make the browsing process as low-impact as possible. BitBoost have taken considerable pains to create a similarly attractive and frictionless UX. This includes instant search, so that the products recorded for sale on the Ethereum blockchain can be queried and returned in real time, updated as the user types what they are looking for. The UI is as clean and intuitive as the major e-commerce sites.

The Block is designed to be a truly global solution to e-commerce that can be used regardless of location. Financially it achieves this with the ‘universal currency’ of ETH. However, since there is no universal language, BitBoost have localised website content in more than 20 major global languages, with more on the way. User experience extends further than these factors, however. As a decentralised e-commerce platform, there is no censorship – indeed, it is not possible for BitBoost to restrict or edit what items are posted for sale. The history of bitcoin shows that one of the use cases for cryptocurrencies is purchases of drugs and other illegal items on the net’s dark markets. BitBoost do not condone the use of The Block for these purposes, and they recognise in any case that items that are legal in one jurisdiction might be illegal in another.

The solution to this is to include optional filters that hide items within the given search parameters that fall outside of the required criteria. BitBoost will provide a standard filter that will be enabled by default, to hide items that are illegal in most jurisdictions (for example, most recreational drugs). Third-party filters will be created and can restrict the display of items on different grounds, including legal, moral and religious. It is up to the user to activate these filters according to their preferences.

Another problem that arises from the lack of censorship – in this case, financial intervention – is what happens when there are problems in the sales/delivery process. Whilst The Block’s peer-to-peer design has enormous benefits, it is fundamentally different to the typical model and raises questions regarding dispute resolution. The Block will use a built-in reputation system and escrow to address this problem.

To begin with, The Block will protect buyers and sellers with a system that scores users on reliability and trustworthiness based on feedback after completed transactions. This is similar to the system that eBay and many other e-commerce platforms use; merchants who offer consistently high-quality products, good communication and prompt and reliable delivery will naturally receive better feedback, and their enhanced reputation will lead to future business. This crowd-sourced reputation system will provide a first line of defence against substandard merchants and outright scammers.

Secondly, The Block features a new form of smart contract-based arbitration in the event of a dispute. Sellers can select an escrow partner. Like everyone else, escrows are rated based on feedback, so the best, fairest and most reliable escrows will become clear over time. Payment is lodged with an escrow at the time of purchase, but these funds are locked by smart contract and arbiters are only paid if their services are required. Otherwise, in the event of a smooth purchase and delivery, funds are returned to the buyer.

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