W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > public-credentials@w3.org > June 2017

Re: First pass at CG naming goals and restrictions google doc

From: Natalie Smolenski <nsmolenski@learningmachine.com>
Date: Thu, 1 Jun 2017 15:36:46 -0500
Message-ID: <CA+MaxOAp+p6XQ==nCqiCQzCLEVm_dN7M6G0S19L-X46MYhfkUw@mail.gmail.com>
To: Kim Hamilton Duffy <kim@learningmachine.com>
Cc: Timothy Holborn <timothy.holborn@gmail.com>, Christopher Allen <ChristopherA@blockstream.com>, Adrian Gropper <agropper@healthurl.com>, Credentials CG <public-credentials@w3.org>, Kim Hamilton <kimdhamilton@gmail.com>, Philip Sheldrake <philip@eulerpartners.com>
Hello CG team!

It is very good to meet you. My colleague Kim mentioned to me that the term
"self-sovereign identity" is under debate at the W3C and invited me to
share a few thoughts, which are informed by my own social
scientific/historical perspective. They may or may not be helpful to
you--in any case, I'm sending for your consideration.

In my view, we are in the midst of a broad cultural shift from "rights
discourse" to "sovereignty discourse." This has to do with the collapse and
transformation of the post-WW2 global order, which was characterized by
international institutions using the language of "human rights" to, through
cooperation, enshrine progressive policies in law and prevent a repeat of
the atrocities of the Second World War. For various historical reasons
which I won't go into here, but which include the lack of agreement upon
what exactly a "right" is or what specific rights are, how rights are
socially constituted and enforced, and the questionable human rights
records of countries functioning publicly as proponents of human rights,
rights language began to lose momentum in favor of alternative discourses
of emancipation and empowerment.

As part of this shift, the language of sovereignty was resurrected. It is
an old term, considered by political theologians for millennia. Yet in the
contemporary context it carries new connotations derived from the
Westphalian nation-state system: nations are presumed to be sovereign, and
"national sovereignty" is a phrase with which many people are familiar. The
debate about the Iraq War, for example, revolved preeminently around the
question of whether violating national sovereignty is permissible under
international law if the rights of that nation's citizens are being
trampled (which was one of the justifications for war given by its

While nations are presumed to be sovereign, the individual is not. This has
serious implications for how privacy is considered. In the US context, the
strongest constitutional protection of privacy, the fourth amendment
protection against unreasonable search and seizure, used to be protected by
the requirement that searches be conducted only upon the issuance of a
warrant, and that could only occur with probable cause. Today, post war on
terror, probable cause is found in the diffuse, ambient threats to
"national security" which are presumed to be omnipresent and everpresent.
In other words, "threat" has become a theological structure, a type of
anti-god, which can be matched only by equally pervasive surveillance
technology which is so sophisticated that surveillance is now simply the
default state everywhere. This is the new political theology, an Ahura
Mazda battling Ahriman in the contemporary age.

In such a context, the assertion of *individual* self-sovereignty does work
that no other terminology does. It immediately forces a comparison between
the rights of individuals and the rights of a nation in a way that produces
generative ideological friction for those who had never considered
sovereignty as anything but the prerogative of the state. Moreover, it also
forces a confrontation with the new digital "personalities of a higher
order"--the Googles, ISP's, Facebooks, and other massive platform
providers--whose sovereignties run orthogonally to, and often undergird,
that of nation-states.

In short, restoring a measure of individual autonomy and invisibility in
light of such power structures needs a language stronger than that of
rights. Rights, after all, have long been ideologically appropriated for
corporate persons, particularly in the US context. On the other hand, using
the language of sovereignty affords an opportunity to be taken seriously
across the political spectrum, and it spurs thinking because people
encounter it without believing they already understand what it means. The
meaning of the term sovereignty is, of course, not self-evident, and will
be contested. However, the digital arena offers a "leading edge" of
experimentation and refactoring of traditional understandings of political
subjectivity. How they get worked out and implemented digitally will have
potentially salutary--or deeply hindering--effects for analog political

Best regards,

Natalie Smolenski
Learning Machine
*www.learningmachine.com <http://www.learningmachine.com/>*
(469) 930-4189

On Thu, Jun 1, 2017 at 2:44 PM, Kim Hamilton Duffy <kim@learningmachine.com>

> Adding Natalie Smolenski (mentioned below) to the thread.
> On Wed, May 31, 2017 at 11:06 PM Timothy Holborn <
> timothy.holborn@gmail.com> wrote:
>> I will review the above (with thanks) and get back to you asap.
>> FYI also: http://standards.ieee.org/news/2017/digital_inclusion.html
>> Tim.h.
>> On Thu., 1 Jun. 2017, 3:58 pm Christopher Allen, <
>> ChristopherA@blockstream.com> wrote:
>>> I worked very hard reviewing various terminology alternatives before
>>> deciding to use the term “self-sovereign identity” for our technology — I
>>> wrote about the decision process as well about 10 initial principles of
>>> self-sovereign identity at http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2016/04/
>>> the-path-to-self-soverereign-identity.html which was also republished
>>> by Coindesk.
>>> A key point about the choice of the word “sovereign” is that in the
>>> legal history of the term, sovereign always has edges — a nation is
>>> sovereign to its borders, but not further. For individuals, “the right to
>>> swing your arm ends just where the other man’s nose begins” is also a very
>>> old concept. (That, and some other choice quotes is at
>>> https://www.slideshare.net/ChristopherA/collection-of-
>>> economic-freedom-quotes-curated-by-christopher-allen ) Natalie
>>> Smolenski wrote about this a bit in https://medium.com/
>>> learning-machine-blog/identity-and-digital-self-sovereignty-1f3faab7d9e3
>>> where she talks about sovereignty on the high seas. I personally believe we
>>> currently are in a major historical age of renegotiation of what
>>> sovereignty means — in the past this has been from war leaders to barons,
>>> barons to feudalism, cities to nations, multi-nationals, toward today where
>>> everything is being re-thought (EU -> Brexit -> Scottish Independence ->
>>> Gloucester’s worries about Edinburgh is a great example).
>>> The biggest objection to the term was that there are some conservative
>>> protesters and kooks that object to the sovereignty of nation states
>>> entirely, which is called the “sovereign citizen movement” ( see
>>> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sovereign_citizen_movement ) — the
>>> arguments against that particular corruption of the word were compelling,
>>> however, in the end I decided, partly on the basis of the suggestion in a
>>> podcast by a professional comic that said lean into the emotions of words,
>>> to use “self-sovereign identity”. This proved to work quite well, starting
>>> at the ID2020 conference at the United Nations, where they were quite
>>> compelled by the name because in the UN’s POV, identity is a human right,
>>> not a nation-state process. Today google reports that are over 11,000
>>> references to the phrase “self-sovereign identity”.
>>> Some of the better links:
>>> http://www.lifewithalacrity.com/2016/04/the-path-to-self-
>>> soverereign-identity.html
>>> https://bitsonblocks.net/2017/05/17/a-gentle-introduction-
>>> to-self-sovereign-identity/
>>> http://www.windley.com/archives/2016/08/an_internet_for_identity.shtml
>>> https://medium.com/learning-machine-blog/identity-and-
>>> digital-self-sovereignty-1f3faab7d9e3
>>> http://www.windley.com/archives/2016/10/on_sovereignty.shtml
>>> https://github.com/jandrieu/rebooting-the-web-of-trust-
>>> fall2016/raw/master/topics-and-advance-readings/a-
>>> technology-free-definition-of-self-sovereign-identity.pdf
>>> http://www.windley.com/archives/2016/05/why_
>>> companies_need_self-sovereign_identity.shtml
>>> http://www.linuxjournal.com/content/doing-user-space-what-
>>> we-did-kernel-space
>>> https://www.sovrin.org/The%20Inevitable%20Rise%20of%
>>> 20Self-Sovereign%20Identity.pdf
>>> http://essay.utwente.nl/71274/1/Baars_MA_BMS.pdf
>>> http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/self-sovereign-identity-cornerstone-blockchain-
>>> internet-1609550
>>> https://github.com/WebOfTrustInfo/self-sovereign-
>>> identity/blob/master/Schutte-on-SSI.md
>>> There are many other terms in the past (see my original article) but my
>>> hope is that self-sovereign is less corruptible than terms like
>>> “user-centric identity” were in the past.
>>> — Christopher Allen
>>> --
> Kim Hamilton Duffy
> Principal Engineer | Learning Machine + MIT Media Lab
> 400 Main Street Building E19-732, Cambridge, MA 02139
> 12001 N. Central Expy, Suite 1025, Dallas, TX 75243
> kim@learningmachine.com | kimhd@mit.edu
> 425-652-0150 <(425)%20652-0150> | LearningMachine.com
Received on Friday, 2 June 2017 07:29:41 UTC

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