Identity has a protocol. A formal semantic framework to model digital identities and relationships


Identity has a protocol. A formal semantic framework to model digital identities and relationships


Jorge Lopez & Akseli Virtanen

Short summary of the improvement idea

We aim to enhance our digital identity systems, grounded in the philosophical insight that identity emerges always from mutual agreements within society, having a relational context, roles with associated rights, and a shared meaning framework. Digital identities thus can be understood as formal social-organizational agreements, that can be formally modeled as instances of a stateful protocol with programmable identity and relational semantics.

What is the existing target protocol you are hoping to improve or enhance?

Digital Identity. The project aims to redefine the essence and implementation of identity within digital spaces, treating it not only as a static informational construct, but a dynamic one: a protocol—a set of agreed-upon rules and standards for reference, information locality, communication and interaction. By drawing on the poststructuralist notion of identity as always emerging from and being sustained by mutual negotiable agreements within a society, i.e. a programmable network, we propose an improved architecture with no central authority or absolute reference space, that allows for the distributed, flexible construction and negotiation of identities. A shift from a centralized to a decentralized identity framework emphasizes interoperability and distribution of the authorship of agreements from which our identities always emerge.

What is your key insight or core idea about potential improvement you want to pursue?

Our core insight is that by understanding and reconceptualizing (legal or digital) identity as having a protocol—always embedded in, emerging from and sustained by a social agreement—we can develop a decentralized, more dynamic, expressive and interoperable identity framework.

We understand that notions like authentication, authority, authorization, authorship, and agreement are fundamentally connected to identity, and can be formally defined. In utilizing a formal identity framework to frame not only the identities, but the rights associated to them, we reveal that existing identity constructs are often predicated in a central authority and an absolute reference space.

On one hand, identity defines how two or more parties are distinct from each other. On the other hand, we must also define how these parties are related to each other, how they may interact (what rights they grant to and hold over each other) and the setting and semantic context in which these interactions may take place. It is the definition of multiple “insides”, and a shared “outside”. By formally modeling these notions through the lens of information locality, we can define what information and rights are private, which is public, and which are exclusively shared between those parties.

Such a framework would have the potential of not only allowing individuals to consolidate and forge their own identities but also of ensuring these identities can be made interoperable across various digital platforms and social contexts.

What is your discovery methodology for investigating the current state of the target protocol?

A comparative system analysis of current identity constructs – a national social security, a bank account, a social media user account, a blockchain address – as social agreements (multi-agent formal contracts), on the one hand, to reveal their nature and limitations as identity frameworks; and on the other, to reveal the minimum atom needed for the creation of one’s own identity: the right to create one’s relationships and the need for a formal multiparty programming language to do so.

In what form will you prototype your improvement idea?

Understanding that a protocol is basically an interoperability standard, we must focus on implementation independence. To this end we must create:

  1. A formal protocol model utilizing hierarchical state machines with dependent type systems.
  2. Clear documentation of the protocol semantics, HSMs and types (with visual aids such as state charts).
  3. A reference implementation to test and iterate on the model. We will start by implementing it in javascript with the help of Protocol.js (a new open source project by Jorge Lopez, one of the authors), followed by an implementation in Idris to enable formal proofs for particular network’s behaviors.

How will you field-test your improvement idea?

Field-testing will assess the protocol’s interoperability, flexibility, and ease of integration, informed by feedback from the use case users. Testing is carried out by applying the protocol to selected use cases, guided by the notion that identity’s meaning and utility are co-constructed by users within a social context. Testing approach ensures that the protocol is not only interoperable but also adaptable to the multifaceted ways in which identities need to be experienced and used in postcapitalist digital environments.

Who will be able to judge the quality of your output? Ideally name a few suitable judges.

Ian Grigg: Works on distributed identity systems; financial cryptographer, the author of Identity Cycle (also Ricardian contract, Triple Entry Accounting)

Edwin Brady: works on and is the original designer of the type driven development language Idris.

Michael Zargham: works on distributed governance and identity frameworks, founder of BlockScience, distributed systems engineer

Dennis “Jaromil” Roio: Works on the ethics and politics of protocols; distributed systems architect, founder of Dyne.

Luciana Parisi: Works at the intersection of poststructuralist philosophy, information sciences and computational technologies – investigating technology in terms of ontological and epistemological possibilities of transformation in culture, aesthetics and politics. The author of Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics and Space

Primavera de Filippi: works on decentralized governance frameworks and identity; a legal researcher, co-author of Blockchain and the Law

Kaliya Young: a decentralized identity expert; founder of the Internet Identity Workshop, the author of the Comprehensive Guide to Self-Sovereign Identity

Geert Lovink: Internet activist, expert on internet subjectivity and networks with consequences, Prof. of Network Cultures (University of Amsterdam).

Kali Akuno: Cofounder of Cooperative Jackson, a network of worker cooperatives and community lead programs; co-editor of Jackson Rising: the Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, MS

How will you publish and evangelize your improvement idea?

We propose the creation of a formal protocol model as a hierarchical state machine with typed state transitions, alongside a reference implementation. This will be published in a public github repository to create awareness and traction and to collect initial feedback on the framework’s capacity to model different identity constructs.

What is the success vision for your idea?

The real long term one: A private and consolidated identity management space within an interoperable and flexible digital ecosystem where we can seamlessly create, manage, and engage with diverse identity constructs and their associated relational spaces (be it applications, web apps, blockchains or other protocols). A such identity framework functioning as a base for distributed creation of rights (distributed governance), upon which other social agreements’ topologies may be decentralized, i.e.distributed issuance of assets; distributed accounting, etc. All steps towards the moonshot vision: a postcapitalist economic-organizational expression protocol.