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The original vision for the World Wide Web was an open platform on which everyone could freely communicate and access information. It was built on the decentralized architecture of the internet, used open standards, and functioned as an accessible platform that would inherit and amplify the fundamentally decentralized nature of the network that underpinned it.
However, the reality today has fallen far short of its founding vision. The modern internet is largely centralized and siloed. The vast majority of web traffic belongs to a few powerful corporations that control the distribution of data through platforms designed to selectively serve up information based on in-depth analysis of their users’ data. The lack of an identity system native to the internet over time has created an imbalance of power that erodes users’ digital rights.
Several decades after the web was introduced, most of us are now accustomed to widespread spam, fraud, abuse, and misinformation. We don’t have any real agency over how our data is used, and the corporations controlling our data have shown their inability to properly shoulder the responsibility that comes with it. We’re locked into this system, with no reasonable ability to opt out.
As a result, the modern internet has made it incredibly difficult to establish trust with others online, creating many barriers to participation that often leave everyday users out of the value chain. Information and data, and the value they create, are no longer freely accessible by the users creating it — most of whom are utterly unaware of the limited agency they have in accessing it. To fix this fundamental problem of digital trust, we need to begin by building a system that allows users to control their identities and to move their personal data freely from one online platform to another without fear of vendor lock-in.
The emerging “Web of Trust” is an idea that has been around since the dawn of the internet. To explain what motivated its creation, let’s take a look at how trust on the internet functions today.
Though we may not always be aware, we rely on a basic form of security practically every day we use the internet. HTTPS, the secure browsing protocol for the World Wide Web, uses a common infrastructure based on digital signatures to allow users to authenticate and access websites, and protect the privacy and integrity of the data exchanged while in transit. It is used to establish trust on all types of websites, to secure accounts, and to keep user communications, identity, and web browsing private.
This is all based on the usage of cryptographic keys, instead of passwords, to perform security and encryption. Public key cryptography is a cryptographic technique that enables entities to securely communicate on an insecure public network (the internet), and reliably verify the identity of users via digital signatures. It is required for activities where simple passwords are an inadequate authentication method and more rigorous proof is required to confirm the identity of the parties involved in the communication and to validate the information being transferred.
The type of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) currently used by the internet primarily relies on a hierarchical system of certificate authorities (CAs), which are effectively third-parties that have been designated to manage identifiers and public keys. Virtually all internet software now relies on these authorities. Certificate authorities are responsible for verifying the authenticity and integrity of public keys that belong to a given user, all the way up to a ‘self-signed’ root certificate. Root certifications are typically distributed with applications such as browsers and email clients. Applications commonly include over one hundred root certificates from dozens of PKIs, thereby bestowing trust throughout the hierarchy of certificates which lead back to them. The concept is that if you can trust the chain of keys, you can effectively establish secure communication with another entity with a reasonable level of assurance that you’re talking to the right person.
However, the reliance on certificate authorities creates a centralized dependency for practically all transactions on the internet that require trust. This primarily has to do with the fact that current PKI systems tightly control who gets to manage and control the cryptographic keys associated with certificates. This constraint means that modern cryptography is largely unusable for the average user, forcing us to borrow or ‘rent’ identifiers such as our email addresses, usernames, and website domains through systems like DNS, X.509, and social networks. And because we need these identities to communicate and transact online, we’re effectively beholden to these systems which are outside of our control. In addition, the usability challenges associated with current PKI systems mean that much of Web traffic today is unsigned and unencrypted, such as on major social networks. In other words, cryptographic trust is the backbone of all internet communications, but that trust rarely trickles down to the user level.
A fully realized web of trust instead relies on self-signed certificates and third party attestations, forming the basis for what’s known as a Decentralized Public Key Infrastructure (DPKI). DPKI returns control of online identities to the entities they belong to, bringing the power of cryptography to everyday users (we call this user-centric cryptography) by delegating the responsibility of public key management to secure decentralized datastores, so anyone and anything can start building trust on the web.
The foundational technology for a new DPKI is a system of distributed identifiers for people, organizations, and things. Decentralized identifiers are self-certifying identifiers that allow for distributed discovery of public keys. DIDs can be stored on a variety of different data registries, such as blockchains and public databases, and users can always be sure that they’re talking to the right person or entity because an identifier’s lookup value is linked to the most current public keys for that identifier. This creates a kind of even playing field where the standards and requirements for key management are uniform across different users in an ecosystem, from everyday users to large corporations and everything in between.
This will, in the first place, give users far greater control over the manner in which their personal data is being used by businesses, allowing them to tweak their own experience with services to arrive at that specific trade-off between convenience and data protection that best suits their individual requirements. But more importantly, it will allow users to continue to federate data storage across multiple services while still delivering the benefits that come from cross-platform data exchange. In other words, it gives them the ability to manage all their data in the same way while being able to deal with data differently depending on the context they are in. This also allows them to move their personal data freely from one online platform to another without losing access to the services they need, and without fear of vendor lock-in.
Eventually, this will allow for portability not only of data but of the trust and reputation associated with the subjects of that data. For instance, a user might be able to transfer their reputation score from one ride-sharing service to another, or perhaps use the trust they’ve established in one context in another context entirely.
This emerging decentralized web of trust is being forged by a global community of developers, architects, engineers, organizations, hackers, lawyers, activists, and more working to push forward and develop web standards for things like credential exchange, secure messaging, secure storage, and trust frameworks to support this new paradigm. The work is happening in places like the World Wide Web Foundation, W3C Credentials Community Group, Decentralized Identity Foundation, Trust Over IP Foundation, Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger project, and Internet Engineering Task Force, to name a few.