Digital signature company DocuSign might have little to do with bitcoin at first glance. The firm's business is replacing ink signatures on paper with its own electronic version.
But the audience listening to DocuSign founder Tom Gonser at Web Summit in Dublin last week might have been forgiven for thinking they'd stumbled onto a sermon about the benefits of the blockchain.
Gonser ran through the complexities of identity and contract management in a digital age, pointing out that different jurisdictions had very different ideas of what constituted a valid contract. He stood on stage in Dublin and waved a $5 bill at the audience, saying:
"This is a contract ... I'll give this bill to whoever wants it. But you have to go to a pub and try to buy a beer with it. You'll have a hard time, because they'll say no, I need to take euros."
In a bitcoin sermon, this is where the blockchain and decentralisation comes in. Instead, Gonser's talk continued with the credit card companies – Visa, and MasterCard – solving the problem of converting cash in different jurisdictions by "hiding" the transactions behind a single credit card, which they issued.
Blockchain a 'sea change'
Gonser, who serves as chief strategy officer at DocuSign, isn't touting the bitcoin protocol and its open ledger as a solution for his company – but it may only be a matter of time.
He told CoinDesk that his firm's research labs are experimenting with the technology underpinning bitcoin, because of the chance that it might uncover ways of working on digital identity that are "fundamentally better".
"Bitcoin is definitely something to watch ... it does represent something that's a sea change in how transactions can be tracked and audited," Gonser said.
Gonser also extolled the decentralised nature of distributed ledgers in identity management systems of the future. He gave the example of personal medical records, which are held by a number of different institutions, depending on the jurisdiction a patient is located in.
"No one actually owns their [records]. I have probably 10, but I've never seen mine. It's the hospital – I don't know where it is. But it needs to be mine, it needs to be something I store," he said.
Gonser said distributed networks that make use of the blockchain, then, could be the solution for digital identity systems of the future, explaining:
"The notion of empowered individuals in the digital world, creating a strong identity to make their life have less friction ... to the extent bitcoin represents this decentralised framework, it's very much in line with my thinking of how identity evolves."
Thinking about identity's evolution is something Gonser has spent plenty of time on over the years. He started DocuSign more than 10 years ago after leaving NetUpdate, a mortgage transaction platform that he also founded.
As of today, DocuSign has raised $125m in funding as it goes head-to-head giants like Adobe, with its EchoSign platform. The company is valued at $1.6bn, according to estimates reported by the Wall Street Journal.
DocuSign claims 48 million customers and a rapidly growing headcount of more than 650 people last year. Its customer base is perhaps the most interesting thing about it: it counts big names in the financial world including Bank of America and Visa, which is also an investor in the firm, as customers.
Governments and digital standards
Gonser recounts how governments today are still liable to reject the established digital signature standard called X.509, first issued in 1988, in favour of their own homegrown solutions.
"When we go to a country that has a specific type of signature technology, they can just say, we don't care. We want you to use this one," he said.
For bitcoin, the challenge is even tougher, Gonser said. While X.509 also relies on encryption, like the bitcoin protocol, it differs from bitcoin in that it works on a centralised 'hierarchical' model, where certifying authorities vouch for a document's authenticity.
"Everybody has pretty much agreed on the X.509 standard ... it's been around for a long time. There's no reason blockchain technology couldn't also be adopted. It just takes governments a long time to do things."
While Gonser is a believer in the potential of the Bitcoin protocol, he said it is some way off mass adoption.
"If the federal government said, if your identity is backed as a bitcoin element, then sure. But that's just a long way off ... [the technology] is just very primal now," he said.
But if one of DocuSign's big customers started asking for bitcoin integration, Gonser said he wouldn't hesitate to get his firm on the blockchain.
"From our perspective, it's pretty cool technology. But it's a small piece of the entire puzzle. The catalyst for us is if some customer said we would like to use [bitcoin] behind the signature. It wouldn't be very hard for us to do that," he said.
Featured image via Web Summit