One of the most cherished innovations of the early Internet was its openness. Anyone could publish and access content; anyone could be who or what they wanted to be; no permissions required. No one was in charge. The Internet knew no borders. It was innocent.
That was then. Those very qualities of openness and freedom are now its nemesis. What was free has become fake: fake Ids, facts, content, images, videos, news; everything is gameable. Nothing is to be trusted. To make matters worse, major platforms such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Twitter and others exploit those weaknesses through algorithms that amplify sensationalized and extreme user responses as a part of their business model. The platforms are agnostic as to the character or validity of the content, but extremely pious about their “freedom” to connect and to drive the volume of content. The more the better. That translates into revenue and influence.
Not So Fast
On the other hand, the IOT world of autonomous vehicles, smart cities, infrastructures, munitions and drones are not quite so sanguine about the status of their data or messages. On the contrary, they absolutely depend upon the veracity, reliability and latency of their devices and networks being 6 Sigma. Likewise, the much anticipated Trillion $ 5G revolution will be a total flop if it is no more credible than today’s social media. Given the very stringent requirements of IoT and 5 G services and the level of investments placed in them, their architectures, standards and protocols will eventually drive adoption and innovation in the gaming, social media, blockchain and crypto-asset worlds.
Why Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)
The good and the bad of digital content or “assets” is precisely so because they are fungible; they can be readily copied or exchanged for other items. Not only is there no scarcity; there has been no inherent incentive to create scarcity or uniqueness. The whole idea is to copy, share and retweet. Yet there is a counterargument that objects that have intrinsic value should not be able to be copied or counterfeited. If an item can be readily copied, it loses its value. Some have argued to the contrary that the increased copying and circulation of content only increases its value through exposure. However, In many instances, the value or “power” of data or content resides in the truth of its claim to be uniquely what it is. That the picture or video is actually authentic – tamperproof; that the identity or attributes of an author or commentator are also authentic or tamperproof. If that cannot be proven to be the case, then any copy of that identity or content only diminishes its value. This is especially apparent for any IOT device for any compromise of its identity and data totally destroys its value. Hence, claims about the identity, provenance, performance about people, content, and IoT devices need to be provably unique to be trusted.
Much of the buzz and enthusiasm around NFTs comes from its CryptoKitties heritage and the gaming use case of ERC 721 tokens for creating in game collectibles. That is all well and good and one can readily see how collectible virtual goods can be created and traded in games and virtual worlds. But the use case being advocated here is more fundamental, and addresses a flaw in the “design” of Web 2.0. It is not just that the Web has no “authentication layer” as Vint Cerf has lamented, but there is no decentralized and self-correcting way for asserting, testing, and revising claims around identity, reputation, provenance, and permissions.
Here Comes Bottom Up, Agile, Decentralized Certification
Yet if one thinks of NFTs as “titles” to claims made about data, objects or whatever by vetted and transparent processes and “smart contracts”, then one has the basis for a bottom-up, viral and self-organizing way of restoring trust and “truth’ to the internet. Rather than trying to set up an Uber Arbitrator for resolving true from false claims, allow for many kinds of processes for verifying claims, and let the competition among different approaches select for those that achieve the most trust. Note that the NFT is issued as the result of a process or competing processes that received data, analyzes data and then make determinations whether or not to issue NFT to memorialize that event. The extent to which different parties will come to rely upon those NFTs and assume significant risks will testify to their value and likely adoption. These processes can be used to certify the veracity of assertions such as date of birth, origin of birth, level of education, and Social Security Number by a trusted or known Third party, and then to generate an NFT without having to disclose the actual date or number. In this way, NFTs can be used to verify attributes and preserve privacy at the same time.
Identity NFT Tokens:
NFTs can be used to issue identity tokens based upon open-ended criteria for asserting identity whether for a person or a device. In either case, one needs to assert the uniqueness of the devices; for people, that could be a series of photos-videos and biometrics, and for devices, it could be a seed identifier and registration process. From there what the additional criteria may be will depend upon the application and the need to generate and share data or metadata. The point is that the token is a Title that is uniquely associated with the individual or device. Again, depending upon the application, these tests can be one time, random or continuous.
Reputation NFT Tokens
The old adage you are what you do is a pretty good rule of thumb for measuring reputation. For devices, it is relatively simple, they perform to specification over an extended period of time under variable conditions. For people, it is more difficult. Reliability, responsiveness, competence, and promptness are important human traits, but they can differ according to kinds of behaviors – work, civic engagement, family or friendship? There are many criteria such as truthfulness, honesty, empathy, openness, or hostility, and aggression, that are much harder to measure. Nonetheless, one can imagine algorithms of varying and possibly evolving competencies gathering data to compute scores and issue NFTs for different kinds of reputation attributes. In those cases, where the desired outcome is to have civil and constructive commentary, the combination of ID NFTs and Reputation NFTs would be very useful to qualify access and participation. Likewise, the performance of individuals on different fora would also be part of their reputation score. Hence, the capacity and the incentive to troll and disrupt could be significantly reduced. The informal protocols of paid and volunteer moderators such as those for Reddit have proven effective in identifying patterns of deception through Zombie accounts in promoting fake facts and extreme views contrary to the rules of the subreddit. ID NFTs would make it difficult to sell Zombie accounts on playerup.com or epicnpc.com and more rigorous Reputation NFTs might supersede the less Karma points.
The sharing of data, especially geo-location data and Personal Identifying Information (PII), is both essential to enabling application services such as ridesharing and targeted messaging, and yet, it is incredibly invasive. Is it possible to make use of such data to the benefit of the user and the service provider without compromising privacy?
For small sample sizes where there can be many unique behaviors and attributes, it is truly difficult to prevent re-identification. However, given that only metadata would be generated and used, and that no individual would be identified, using only the ID NFT, AND there would be limits to what calculations and access would be granted – AND there would be blockchain records on access AND the IDs and permissions of all those accessing the data would be known, AND there would be significant damages identified in the Terms of Service, the likelihood of a breach would seem to be very low. Associated with the Privacy NFTs could be containers of metadata that could suffice for many analytic applications. There is the additional prospect that the data would be encrypted and that there would only be permitted processes on the encrypted data. This too provides another layer of privacy protection.
Data are most valuable when they are verified and aggregated. Often data are gathered from many different sources and devices but remain in silos and underutilized. This isolation is in no small measure due to the reluctance of vendors and owners to share confidential data or a lack of the requisite permissions from the data owners. In a wholly decentralized manner, it would be feasible to develop a library of smart contracts for permissions controlling the kinds of use, duration, revocation, and other access parameters. Such permissions would be linked to data containers that could be accessed only through NFT Privacy Titles that would be required for specified types of data sharing or aggregation.
Implications for ISPs and Platforms
One of the conundrums of the Internet today is that ISPs and platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter are mostly exempt from any liability for the content hosted on their sites. While that has been good for their growth and given them a leg up on newspaper publishers, it has also undermined journalistic practices, accountability, and engendered fake news on a global scale. These platforms are protected by The Communications Decency Act of 1997 which was passed to encourage the growth of the Internet as a communications medium by not treating such platforms as publishers, and hence, relieving them of any responsibility for the nature of their content. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have thrived under these protections and have been extremely reluctant to remove or ‘censor” any content other than blatant violence, child pornography and ISIS terrorist messaging. Since there is no definition of “hate speech” that is readily enforceable in the US, there is every financial incentive for such platforms not to inhibit the flow of “free” speech. These platforms have said that they do not want to be in the position of censoring “free speech” and even, the limited efforts they have made to curb aggressive and violent speech, as in the case of Alex Jones, and Infowars, they have been challenged by the Trump administration and Alt-Right supporters as being discriminatory to conservatives and in violation of First Amendment Rights.
There may be a viable solution that does not require new regulations nor setting up a “censorship board.” A bottom-up, open, and decentralized approach to certification of claims about individuals, media, reputation and permissions is feasible using a combination of Privacy, Identity, Reputation and Permissions based smart contracts and NFTs that could provide a way out of this quagmire. If platform members are concerned about fake news, trolling, and manipulation of messaging, and the like, they or affiliated entities could form their own member networks by implementing a variety of policies according to their values, taste and preference. Rather than having censorship by a single hosting authority, different approaches based on privacy, identity and permissions would compete for acceptance and over time establish their own norms and criteria. Hence, platforms could host different approaches and perhaps act as a referee in providing “meta-metrics” of their performance and effectiveness.
Such an approach would not eliminate fakery and trolling, as there will always be those who adhere to their beliefs regardless of any scientific or direct evidence. Groups like the Flat Earth Society, conspiracy theorist and fundamentalists will not go away, but their messages and sensationalism will not be amplified and confused with more legitimate facts and reporting, Over time and through competition and vetting, there would evolve new kinds of standards and norms that are genuinely democratic and not imposed from above but are evidence-based. There could be no complaint of censorship as each group would be accountable for the success or failure of their own forms of communication and verification.
A Real World Enterprise Use Case for NFTs: Swytch X
As a co-founder of the Token Commons Foundation, my colleagues and I wanted to provide an open platform for the proof of sustainable energy production in order to incentivize the global transition to a non-fossil economy. Our initial focus had been on developing a more verifiable and standard form of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) that work across different jurisdictions. But as we worked with customers, we discovered that for many of them, it was critical that not only could they continuously verify the data they were receiving from their IOT devices, but they wanted to aggregate and share that data to run different analytic climate models and eventually financial models. Hence, they had concerns not only about the provenance and reliability of the data but also how to share it without breaching privacy and confidentiality. Once they could show through ERC 721 Titles that their data was verified and that they could prove ownership, then they could trade those RECs and data on different exchanges.
The Swytch X smart contracts, containers, and NFTs made it possible to accommodate all these needs at scale. Swytch X is still early and it’s in its Alpha phase but currently,the largest generator of NFTs by volume on the Ethereum Test Net (Name?) with …….. ( needs better explanation) Swytch now has signed partnerships with…. To deploy their platform at scale (someone needs for providing allowable details..)with over 2500 different sites etc.
Toward a Multi-Function NFT Protocol
We are at the very early stages for developing the protocols for NFT Title tokens and the related infrastructures and smart contracts to support different applications. Moreover, it is vital not to be too prescriptive or too limiting in determining how the types of protocols and smart contracts should function. For example, there should be genuine and continuous innovation in how to define reputation metrics and processes and many of the constraints will come from the requirements of the different application areas. Similarly, healthcare and financial regulations will set major constraints on identity and permissions process and contracts.
Diagram 1 below illustrates how the protocol layer for NFTs and related smart contracts might evolve. Note that each of the different types of NFTs, Identity, Reputation, Privacy and Permissions, would be associated with their own verified processes and data schemas and containers. Also in all likelihood, new kinds of NFT types would be required as sector-specific applications become standardized
The age of innocence is over for the Internet. Its very qualities of openness and fungibility are now its shortcomings. Through the accidental innovation, he heirs of Crypto-Kitties, ERC 721 and ERC 1155 Non Fungible Tokens combined with the proper smart contracts and data containers might provide a fix for the rampant fakery and distrust on the Internet. In keeping with the best traditions of the Internet, it is a bottom-up, decentralized, loosely coupled, emergent approach that does not impose censorship from the top down nor rely upon a single Third Party. Rather it allows for an open, plurality of competing forroaches to provide identity, reputation, privacy and permissions NFTs that people can decide for themselves whether and how they want to rely upon them.