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 you’re 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 blockchain’s “killer app.” Why the shift? Although identity did not require blockchain, it was becoming clear that blockchain needed identity.