Web3, Web5 & SSI

TL;DR

  • As a ten-year veteran of the SSI space, my initial reaction to Jack Dorsey’s (Block’s) announcement of Web5 — which is purely SSI tech — was allergic.
  • After further thought and discussion with SSI pros, I now see Web5 as an opportunity to improve adoption for all of SSI and Verifiable Credentials, not just for Block.
  • SSI adoption would benefit by separating from two things: 1. the controversies of Web3 (cryptocurrency, smart contracts, NFTs, Defi, blockchain); 2. the term “self-sovereign identity”.
  • Let ‘crypto’ have the “Web3” designation.
  • SSI will be bigger than crypto/Web3 anyway and deserves its own ‘WebX’ bucket.
  • Web5 can be that bucket, bringing all SSI stacks — Ion, Aries, KERI, etc. — into one big tent.
  • Web5 should be about “autonomous control of authentic data and relationships” and it should welcome any and all technical approaches that aim for that goal.
  • I think a strong, inclusive and unifying designation is “Web5 technologies”.
  • I love the principle of self-sovereignty and will continue to use the term SSI in appropriate conversations, but will begin to use Web5 by default. I invite others to do the same.

Web5 Resistance

Jack Dorsey, of Twitter and Block (formerly Square) fame, has recently introduced to the world what he calls Web5, which he predicts will be “his most important contribution to the internet”. Web5 appears to be purely about SSI, and Dorsey’s favored approach to it. He leaves Web3 focused on crypto — cryptocurrencies, NFTs, Defi, etc. — and nothing more. Web5 separates SSI and verifiable credentials into their own, new bucket, along with the personal datastores and decentralized apps individuals will need to use them.

Controversies Inhibiting SSI Adoption

While I disagree with some of the specifics of Block’s announced Web5 technical approach to SSI, I really liked how they’d made a clean separation from two different controversies that I think have bogged down SSI adoption for years…

Controversy #1: “Crypto”

By “crypto” I mean all the new tech in the cryptocurrency (not cryptography) space: cryptocurrencies, smart contracts, NFTs, Defi, and… blockchain.

Controversy #2: “Self-Sovereign”

When properly defined, SSI shouldn’t be controversial to anyone: it’s the ability for individuals to create direct digital relationships with other people, organizations, and things and to carry and control digital artifacts (often about themselves) and disclose anything about those artifacts if, when, and however they please. The “sovereignty” means the ability to control and/or carry those artifacts plus the liberty to determine disclosure; it does not mean an ability to challenge the sovereignty of authority.

It’s Not Just About Identity

Another issue I see with “SSI”, though more confusing than controversial, is the laser focus on identity. What does “identity” even mean? The word is harder to define than many realize. To some, identity is your driver’s license or passport, to others it’s your username and password or your certificates, achievements and other entitlements. Dr. Phil Windley, the co-founder of IIW, persuasively argues that identity includes all the relationships that it’s used with, because without relationships you don’t need identity.

Let ‘Crypto’ Have “Web3”

If you ask most people who’ve heard of Web3 what it is, they’ll likely mention something about cryptocurrency. A more informed person might mention smart contracts, NFTs, Defi and blockchain. A few might even mention guiding principles like “decentralization” or “individual control of digital assets”. Almost no one, outside of the SSI space, would mention SSI, decentralized identity, or verifiable credentials as part of Web3. Andreessen Horowitz, the largest Web3 investor with $7.6 billion invested so far, recently published their 2022 outlook on Web3 without mentioning SSI or “identity” even once.

SSI is Bigger Than Crypto

If crypto is big enough to be worthy of its own WebX designation, SSI technologies (VCs, DIDs, KERI, etc.) are even more so; my crystal ball says that SSI will be bigger than crypto will be. It’s not a competition, but the comparison is relevant when considering whether SSI should be a part of crypto or separate from it.

Enter Web5

“Web5 Technologies”

SSI is about autonomous control of authentic data and relationships; this is the endgame that Web5 should be about, regardless of which architecture is used to get there.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Though I’m not directly involved in the SSI standards communities, I’ve heard from several who are that tensions over technical differences are rather high right now. I’ve found in my life that when disagreements get heated, it helps to take a step back and rediscover common ground.

S̶S̶I̶ Web5

As a word, I see Web5 as neutral and with little inherent meaning — just something newer and more advanced than Web3. I’m aware that Web5 was originally conceived as a meme, a troll-ish response from Jack to the Web3 community to convey his disappointment in what he asserts is a takeover of Web3 by venture capitalists. Regardless of those light-hearted origins, Jack and company ran with Web5 in all seriousness, throwing their considerable weight and resources behind its launch and the development of their preferred architecture.

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