How to undermine monopoly capitalism's control of our identities
January 23, 2018 2:34 AM Subscribe
Can blockchain protocols fix the internet? - "Why did the internet follow the path from open to closed? ... A closed architecture like Facebook's or Twitter's puts all the information about its users — their handles, their likes and photos, the map of connections they have to other individuals on the network — into a private database that is maintained by the company." (via)
So how can you get meaningful adoption of base-layer protocols in an age when the big tech companies have already attracted billions of users and collectively sit on hundreds of billions of dollars in cash? If you happen to believe that the internet, in its current incarnation, is causing significant and growing harm to society, then this seemingly esoteric problem — the difficulty of getting people to adopt new open-source technology standards — turns out to have momentous consequences. If we can’t figure out a way to introduce new, rival base-layer infrastructure, then we’re stuck with the internet we have today. The best we can hope for is government interventions to scale back the power of Facebook or Google, or some kind of consumer revolt that encourages that marketplace to shift to less hegemonic online services, the digital equivalent of forswearing big agriculture for local farmers’ markets. Neither approach would upend the underlying dynamics of InternetTwo...@stevenbjohnson: "blockchain aside, a major part of the piece is a love song to the open protocol era of the Internet, making the argument that most of our current problems stem from the shift from open to closed platforms."
The true test of the blockchain will revolve — like so many of the online crises of the past few years — around the problem of identity. Today your digital identity is scattered across dozens, or even hundreds, of different sites: Amazon has your credit-card information and your purchase history; Facebook knows your friends and family; Equifax maintains your credit history. When you use any of those services, you are effectively asking for permission to borrow some of that information about yourself in order perform a task: ordering a Christmas present for your uncle, checking Instagram to see pictures from the office party last night. But all these different fragments of your identity don’t belong to you; they belong to Facebook and Amazon and Google, who are free to sell bits of that information about you to advertisers without consulting you. You, of course, are free to delete those accounts if you choose, and if you stop checking Facebook, Zuckerberg and the Facebook shareholders will stop making money by renting out your attention to their true customers. But your Facebook or Google identity isn’t portable. If you want to join another promising social network that is maybe a little less infected with Russian bots, you can’t extract your social network from Twitter and deposit it in the new service. You have to build the network again from scratch (and persuade all your friends to do the same).
The blockchain evangelists think this entire approach is backward. You should own your digital identity — which could include everything from your date of birth to your friend networks to your purchasing history — and you should be free to lend parts of that identity out to services as you see fit. Given that identity was not baked into the original internet protocols, and given the difficulty of managing a distributed database in the days before Bitcoin, this form of “self-sovereign” identity — as the parlance has it — was a practical impossibility. Now it is an attainable goal. A number of blockchain-based services are trying to tackle this problem, including a new identity system called uPort that has been spun out of ConsenSys and another one called Blockstack that is currently based on the Bitcoin platform. (Tim Berners-Lee is leading the development of a comparable system, called Solid, that would also give users control over their own data.) These rival protocols all have slightly different frameworks, but they all share a general vision of how identity should work on a truly decentralized internet.
What would prevent a new blockchain-based identity standard from following Tim Wu’s Cycle, the same one that brought Facebook to such a dominant position? Perhaps nothing. But imagine how that sequence would play out in practice. Someone creates a new protocol to define your social network via Ethereum. It might be as simple as a list of other Ethereum addresses; in other words, Here are the public addresses of people I like and trust. That way of defining your social network might well take off and ultimately supplant the closed systems that define your network on Facebook. Perhaps someday, every single person on the planet might use that standard to map their social connections, just as every single person on the internet uses TCP/IP to share data. But even if this new form of identity became ubiquitous, it wouldn’t present the same opportunities for abuse and manipulation that you find in the closed systems that have become de facto standards. I might allow a Facebook-style service to use my social map to filter news or gossip or music for me, based on the activity of my friends, but if that service annoyed me, I’d be free to sample other alternatives without the switching costs. An open identity standard would give ordinary people the opportunity to sell their attention to the highest bidder, or choose to keep it out of the marketplace altogether... As many critics have observed, ordinary users on social-media platforms create almost all the content without compensation, while the companies capture all the economic value from that content through advertising sales...
The blockchain worldview can also sound libertarian in the sense that it proposes nonstate solutions to capitalist excesses like information monopolies. But to believe in the blockchain is not necessarily to oppose regulation, if that regulation is designed with complementary aims. Brad Burnham, for instance, suggests that regulators should insist that everyone have “a right to a private data store,” where all the various facets of their online identity would be maintained. But governments wouldn’t be required to design those identity protocols. They would be developed on the blockchain, open source. Ideologically speaking, that private data store would be a true team effort: built as an intellectual commons, funded by token speculators, supported by the regulatory state.
Like the original internet itself, the blockchain is an idea with radical — almost communitarian — possibilities that at the same time has attracted some of the most frivolous and regressive appetites of capitalism. We spent our first years online in a world defined by open protocols and intellectual commons; we spent the second phase in a world increasingly dominated by closed architectures and proprietary databases. We have learned enough from this history to support the hypothesis that open works better than closed, at least where base-layer issues are concerned. But we don’t have an easy route back to the open-protocol era. Some messianic next-generation internet protocol is not likely to emerge out of Department of Defense research, the way the first-generation internet did nearly 50 years ago.
Yes, the blockchain may seem like the very worst of speculative capitalism right now, and yes, it is demonically challenging to understand. But the beautiful thing about open protocols is that they can be steered in surprising new directions by the people who discover and champion them in their infancy. Right now, the only real hope for a revival of the open-protocol ethos lies in the blockchain. Whether it eventually lives up to its egalitarian promise will in large part depend on the people who embrace the platform, who take up the baton, as Juan Benet puts it, from those early online pioneers. If you think the internet is not working in its current incarnation, you can’t change the system through think-pieces and F.C.C. regulations alone. You need new code.