Can Blockchain-Based ID Cleanup the Web?

A global authentication service could vastly improve the quality of online discourse and prove wildly profitable.

Anonymity is destroying the world wide web. Simultaneous with the steady erosion of online privacy, the largely theoretical ability to theoretically remain anonymous has unleashed an ever-growing mound of digital garbage. The ability to create anonymous accounts and do whatever we please with them is causing both economic and societal harm yet nobody has embraced the obvious solution, a global pseudo-anonymous authentication service built using blockchain technologies.

Background

Despite countless hours of clicking, tapping, scrolling, and streaming few people understand how the internet and world wide web work. However, a few minutes of background information reveals both a serious vulnerability and a blue ocean of opportunity.

The internet itself is a series of computers called servers all linked together. Those computers send small pieces of information to one another, called packets. Much like we need common languages to talk, so to do computers and the most common language for sending packets is referred to as TCP/IP.

TCP stands for Transmission Control Protocol and makes sure each packet arrives safely. IP stands for Internet Protocol (and, yes, that’s where the name comes from) and navigates the packets, like a GPS system, from your computer to the server you’re trying to reach. IP steers the packets through a series of intermediate computers called routers. Each computer on the network has a series of four numbers (that’s since evolved to more but we’ll stick with the original scheme for simplicity).

Think of it as a mail delivery service except rather than sending big parcels everything is broken into small pieces and reconstructed, Star Trek transporter style, on the other end. TCP makes sure that when you’re beamed somewhere you don’t materialize as a duck on the other end. IP is like the big post offices between sender and receiver which gets mail from them to your mail carrier and device.

All this was invented in the late 60s and lived happily but quietly for decades connecting mainly schools, research organizations, computer companies, and military bases. They primarily sent email to one another but could also send files and participate in basic forums and even simple games.

There were two major problems with the setup.

The first, and easier one to solve, was the computers had numerical names that didn’t correspond to anything. When there were just a few computers linked that wasn’t a problem but, as the network grew, it became cumbersome. To get around that, the Domain Name System (DNS) was invented that assigned names to computers. That allowed you to address a computer as, say, “apple.com” rather than typing 17.253.144.10, the “IP” address.

The second, larger problem was the pieces of information exchanged on the internet had a difficult time referencing the location of one another. You could, for example, write in an email or bulletin-board post “see the graphic file labeled mychart-143.jpg at apple.com/graphics/charts/mystuff/” but that was both unruly and inconvenient.

To fix that, in 1989 researcher Tim Berners-Lee, working for the at a European research lab called CERN, created a method to link files together, a method known in computer science as “hypertext.” First, he needed a way to easily identify the files on computers for transfer and created a new method called “HyperText Transfer Protocol” or HTTP. Next, he needed a way to embed into the files a simple way to link things together. He called this “HyperText Markup Language” or HTML. He created a program to send the hypertext files from computer to computer, via HTTP, and named the network of computers the World Wide Web (www).

The benefit of this scheme was simplicity. But, to keep it simple, Berners-Lee strongly encouraged web servers to operate anonymously. That is, when requesting a file (via HTTP) people need not sign into the computer where the file(s) are stored. This made clicking and hopping between computers, or pulling files in from many computers fast and easy. However, the anonymity also laid the seeds for serious problems. Berners-Lee made linking and “surfing” this web of information easy.

In 1992, Eric Bina and Mark Andreessen created a program, Mosaic, to pull the text and graphics together into one “page.” Their program was called Mosaic and became the first of a type of program called a web browser. With that, the seeds for revolution were planted.

Online Anonymity

With these pieces in place, the world wide web took off. People could easily both create and surf web pages. Surfing the web was incredibly easy; no computer or networking knowledge required. Creating a web page wasn’t much harder. By simplifying everything, including and especially allowing anonymity, the web vastly reduced complexity while raising fun, a blue ocean smash hit entirely predictable on a buyer utility map.

It wasn’t long until problems with anonymity began to pop up. Vandals would send unwanted commercial emails or post advertisements in forums. Hackers would take over web servers. As the web grew in value, the bad actors multiplied thanks largely to an ability to anonymously navigate the network.

Web-based anonymity allows bad actors to create enormous networks of fake accounts on social media causing fights, mayhem, and even affecting elections. Identify theft is ripe. Nobody really knows who is who except for a small number of “authenticated” social media users (ex: Twitter “blue checks”).

Despite the problems, as we head into 2021 anonymity reigns supreme. It’s easy for people to spot fake accounts on any of the social media platforms and fake names abound. However, rather than fix the problem at the core — the non-authentication that users are real people — Big Tech spends enormous resources hunting down bad anonymous bad actors in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.

The irony is that fixing the system may be relatively easy. Much like the DNS system points to computers, an organization could validate that people are who they say they are by giving them a token much like Twitter’s mark except it could be used anywhere online. There is no reason a person’s real identity needs to be disclosed if they don’t wish it but the central repository would know the person is real so if there was an issue it could be traced back.

Blockchain already performs most of this functionality though hasn’t been applied to widescale authentication … yet.

These voluntary electronic labels, attached to both people and businesses, would allow others to filter email and social media and view, say, only authenticated accounts. Those enormous bot-farms would be screaming into a vast void.

Besides improving the overall user experience, the e-labels would also help advertisers by paying one rate for authenticated (real) users and a different rate for anonymous ones. Filtering out the fakes allows advertisers to focus their funds on information that attracts real people, which would help the information providers. Blocking out the scam voices also helps the non-scammers break through the noise vastly improving online discourse.

Privacy

Granted, there are privacy concerns with this scheme but they’re easily mitigated.

First and foremost is for the verification service to keep what we refer to as a hash of personal information though not the information itself. This is a unique code proving a person is who they say they are, which can be replicated later, without keeping the personally identifiable information (which is vulnerable to hackers). You’re already familiar with hashes if you use a thumbprint to unlock a mobile phone. Many phones do not store the thumbprints; they store hashes of the thumbprints. This identification system works the same way.

For areas where even that may be dangerous (ex: dissidents), there is still the option to choose an entirely anonymous account. Nothing stops that; anonymity just doesn’t remain the norm.

So … why hasn’t this been done?

Simply put, Silicon Valley likes big numbers and authenticated accounts can reduce their numbers anywhere from a little bit to a lot. They’d rather signal to an advertiser that a viewer is a high net-worth individual in, say, Los Angeles than a poor villager in Ukraine. Social networks pump their high “user” counts even if a large number of the users are clearly duplicates or outright fakes. Furthermore, nobody wants to be the first to enable authentication and lose a massive number of fake accounts.

However, to a new startup, this e-label scheme provides higher value to both users (high-quality content filtering) and also to advertisers who support these services. Companies would pay to be authenticated, making sure their emails and messages get through to real people and only real people. It’s a low-cost/high-value classic blue ocean opportunity just waiting to be founded and funded.