This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Samir Jaju. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

The Future Of Online Identity: Digital Passports To Access The Internet

It is time the internet had an online access passport, just like the one we have in the offline world. A verified, unique, secure ID to connect to the internet and to go about our lives and activities in the online world. 

Here is how we can design it:

  • Access: To connect to the internet on any device, you would need a biometric sign-in using your passport. The browser is your entry point, the passport is your entry pass.
  • Website Accounts: To create an account on any website, the passport would provide all the required details. To create multiple/parody accounts, all of them will be linked to the passport of the individual creating them.
  • Company Pages: If one handles the social media page for a company or a brand, then they will have two logins, one for the company and one for themselves. This way, each post is linked to who posted it.
  • Online Activity: Any activity or any content created or published online can be traced back to a passport, not just an IP address.
  • Privacy Controls: One would have control over any information linked with their passport lying on the servers of global corporations. They would be able to delete it and control how and what is shared with third-party firms. The passports could contain a private encryption key, so global giants cannot use our data if we revoke our permission to use it.

It can have huge implications on online behaviour and the internet economy:

  • Online Crime: If someone posts abusive content or misformation, if someone frauds another person or an online business, then their passport can be used as evidence in an online court. Also, hacking, phishing and spamming could be traced better.
  • Online Justice: If convicted by an online court, that person would be sent to an online jail, which would mean limited or no access for a period of the sentence.
  • Account Portability: Monopolies are built when switching costs are high. We use WhatsApp because all of us are on it, and ignore Telegram even when it is better. A passport would ensure true, seamless portability between websites. Network effects, which take place due to high switching costs, serve as a huge entry barrier to new entrants. Seamless portability would induce more competition and thereby prevent monopolies.
  • Web Traffic Metrics: Perhaps verified passports would put an end to bots and stop screwing with metrics that businesses use to decide where to spend their online marketing budget. Savings in marketing expenditure would ultimately benefit the consumer, as fierce competition passes any saving on to the end-consumer.
  • Managing Subscriptions: The passport could be linked to an offline bank account. One would be able to manage their subscriptions to online services and pay for them through a dashboard for their passport. This could enable new business models that are not dependent on ad revenues.

The menace of trolling and anonymity:

Anonymity brings radical freedom of expression to those who use it in the right manner. But it is increasingly being used as a tool of misinformation and as a weapon of propaganda. 

Trolls operating online are probably just regular people in the real, offline world where social norms and sanctions deter them from behaving rudely. But anonymity online releases them from any such inhibition. When there is no consequence to bad behaviour, people often behave much worse than they would otherwise. 

In earlier times, the only channels of information for the people were newspapers, radio and TV. The organisations behind them operated in real buildings, cubicles and meeting rooms, their colleagues working within earshot. The industry and the organisational structures served as institutional checks and balances on the content they would put out. Credibility in the industry would be at stake if they wrote something patently false.

But now, social media has given everybody an opinion – no matter how educated – with a channel to broadcast it. This now comes without any of the accountability that comes with operating in the real, offline world. 

Misinformation, bubble and online debate:

There are online websites that are feeding misinformation and venom at an industrial scale to captivate audiences. There are people living in their own realities of “alternative facts”, wherein psychological factors such as confirmation bias and group polarisation have played no small role.

For a debate to have any result, there must be a minimum agreement over basic facts. If facts themselves are in dispute, there can be no consensus over issues. It will lead to a deadlock, suspicion and distrust of the “other” party. Without widespread consensus, our institutions of governance would lose all legitimacy and common acceptability.

Regular surveys are pointing to the same. Trust in the government, media and businesses has been falling. The world today is vulnerable to elected tyrants. If there is to be any return to sanity, there must be an online passport. 

Potential for misuse:

  • Governments world over would love it. They would finally be able to track those individuals who are thorns in their sides.
  • Those in power would be able to censor content by blocking passports of their country from accessing particular websites.
  • They would be able to set up their own online courts, and thereby, impose local standards of morality to the content posted online.

A playground with rules > A jungle

Anonymity on the internet is creating a world that could take away our freedom and security rather than expand it. With anonymity, there can be no accountability for one’s actions. Without accountability, our worst instincts would drive our online behaviour. Civilisation began only when we started following rules. How can any rules be enforced if we even tie the action to its doer?

Having an online passport would be the first step towards regulating the online world. It would sound Orwellian to the champions of online privacy. But get the irony of this: life without freedoms as depicted in Orwell’s 1984 would become reality someday, not because government installed mass surveillance systems – but because it didn’t.

If we let the internet continue unfettered, it would lead to a breakdown of all institutions that took centuries to evolve and develop. To sustain the stability and legitimacy of our institutions, and avoid collapse and chaos on a global scale, it is time we fixed this critical design flaw of the internet.

Created by Samir Jaju

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