An Identity Layer for the Web Would Identify Us Everywhere

This post is part of CoinDesk's 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Elizabeth M. Renieris is the Founder of hackylawyER, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard and an expert on cross-border data protection and privacy laws (CIPP/E, CIPP/US), digital identity, and technologies like blockchain and AI.

Mere months into in the blockchain ID business, I had lost count of the presentations featuring the 1993 The New Yorker cartoon with the tagline On the Internet, nobody knows youre a dog. Before blockchain, I had understood the cartoon to depict an intentional and original design choice of the early internet – the privacy and anonymity of users. Now, it was being used to justify the development of a whole new web with a built-in, blockchain-based identity layer. Needless to say, I was confused.

Through the lens of hindsight, this single engineering decision on anonymity is blamed for everything from bullying and hate speech, to misinformation and election interference, and myriad other abuses. While anonymity certainly complicates mitigation and enforcement efforts in responding to these issues, I am unconvinced that a blockchain-based identity layer for the web is the answer. On the contrary, it could have dire unintended consequences. But first, some context.

At one point, identity was just one of many potential use cases for blockchain (in fact, I worked on one of the first identity tokens). After all, blockchain was never essential to digital identity (traditional PKI-based solutions worked just fine). Still, as we reached the height of the ICO boom in 2017, the number of blockchain-based identity companies and projects proliferated, leading many to ask whether identity was blockchains killer app. Why the shift? Although identity did not require blockchain, it was becoming clear that blockchain needed identity.

In tokenizing things, we turned them into microeconomic transactions, manifesting in literal marketplaces, including for identity (identity for sale, anyone?). Coupled with the ICO framing, these primary marketplaces were also accompanied by secondary markets for trading in the tokens themselves. This transactional framing heightened the regulatory specter and introduced an array of compliance requirements that required, well, identity.

As other use-cases met the real world with its laws and regulations, there was a growing appreciation for compliance challenges and a growing recognition that all blockchain applications and use-cases would have to solve for identity (enter KYC coins, RegTech, and the like). In a post-ICO world, these projects have shifted to a new ambition – an identity layer for the web.

An identity layer for the web was one thing when there was a separation between the online and offline worlds. Now, as we bring everything online through connected devices, smart cities, augmented humans, and (yes) blockchain too, the digital is eating the real world to put it in software terms.

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Tags: Blockchain, World Wide Web, Digital Identity, Abstraction layer, identity, identity, identity, The New Yorker, CoinDesk, Elizabeth Renieris