As technology is making the world more connected, traditional barriers and borders have begun to dissolve. We are beginning to see more people choose to become global citizens. While there are a few different ways in which this term can be defined, the general consensus is that people who are global citizens do not believe that it is necessary to be tied down to the traditional limitations of belonging to one nation.
Improvements in technology are a big part of what makes becoming a global citizen a more realistic and tangible option for people around the world. Blockchain technology in particular has many potential applications pertaining to global citizenship. Here we will look at the early foundations already being established for a globally-recognised digital identity system (or systems), and how this move can create a more positive future for people and nations who choose to embrace related policies and technologies.
One of the most important questions to ask before understanding how blockchain-based identities will work is whether or not governments will play a role in the creation of these systems. As of July 2018, we have seen a mix of both government-led blockchain initiatives and privately-run blockchain projects. Here are a few examples to note that will give you a better understanding of what the current landscape of globally-recognised digital identity systems looks like.
When it comes to blockchain adoption on a national level, Estonia is clearly one of the most innovative examples of today. While many nations have been skeptical of blockchain adoption, Estonia’s national government has embraced these new possibilities and encouraged real-world adoption through policy changes.
In 2017, the Estonian government announced plans to create its own national cryptocurrency called Estcoin. Policy-makers also began to create a blockchain-based digital identity system. In June 2018, the plans for the national cryptocurrency appeared to fall through under pressure from the European Central Bank. Nonetheless, the plans to use blockchain technology and Estcoin for the nation’s e-residency programme appear to remain on track.
Estonia’s e-residency has already become a popular option for non-citizens who are looking to establish EU businesses. While e-residency doesn’t guarantee citizenship, it does reduce many of the traditional barriers to establishing a business in a foreign country. Beyond the e-residency programme, Estonia also offers the possibility of digital identities on the blockchain for its own citizens. According to the project website the nation already has over 500 million digital signatures, which can empower easier access to important services like healthcare, education, voting, and more.
Essentially, a nationally-recognised digital identity means that Estonian citizens don’t have to send official documents through traditional mail or wait in long queues at government buildings. Everything can be done remotely from over 180+ countries at any time from computers or mobile devices. As decentralised technologies continue to improve, Estonia plans to store more data on the blockchain. In turn, this will make information more accessible for relevant parties and more secure from potential hacks of government databases - something which has been an increasingly concerning issue in recent years. By storing data on decentralised databases, governments can create digital identity systems that are much safer than traditional databases run by governments.
It’s essential to note that Estonia is a good example of how the early adoption of blockchain and a solid track record of internet freedom (ranked #1 in the world in 2016) can benefit citizens. However, this combination might not be the case in every location throughout the globe. That’s why we are seeing a variety of other types of other global identity projects in the works that aren’t run by governments.
Even though Estonia does provide a good example of how government-led global identities could be beneficial, there are also a number of private, non-government options beginning to take shape throughout the world.
Bitnation, for example, is a project aiming to serve as Governance 2.0. Back in 2015, Janina Lowisz gained a lot of attention for becoming the first holder of a blockchain ID. Since that time, the project has grown in scope. It has tens of thousands of users and has become the world’s first blockchain for marriage certificates, birth certificates, refugee emergency IDs, World Citizenship, DBVN Constitution and more. This project even won UNESCO’s Netexplo Award in 2017.
What this solution aims to achieve isn’t necessarily in opposition to what blockchain-run governments like Estonia hope to accomplish. While Bitnation does focus more on personal sovereignty and the creation of identity that transcends borders, it is similar to Estonia’s initiative in the sense that it aims to create greater efficiency in governance.
Regardless of which blockchain project (or projects) becomes the go-to option for global identity, it’s most likely that we will continue to see increased collaboration amongst blockchain projects. We are also likely to see collaboration between blockchain projects and existing businesses or national governments. This is because global identity isn’t just limited to whether or not people can access services that have traditionally been administered and led by governments. Global identity also involves economic access (i.e. consumer buying power).
SingleSource, our own project, aims to create a better financial system for AML and KYC checks. Projects and individuals looking to establish digital identity systems, for example, can benefit by assessing financial risk of individual consumers. This type of system can be used across various nations, creating the foundation necessary for global financial background checks that transcend borders.
Consumers can also benefit by gaining more transparency in understanding how companies calculate these ratings. Consumers are able to use this knowledge to establish good credit ratings and a positive reputation that makes it easier to access services globally. This reduces current barriers to market access that have typically been limited to one nation or economic zone. While it’s important to create digital identities for governance, it’s also beneficial to understand how a globally-recognised identity system for financial risk can benefit global citizens.
Now that you have a solid understanding of the ways in which digital identity can change various parts of global governance and commerce, it’s essential to look at a few of the big questions surrounding the creation and adoption of these systems. The answers will play a vital role in shaping how digital identity for global citizenship may ultimately work day-to-day.
While it seems that national governments are the ultimate authority in determining identity (since national passports are a commonly-accepted default), this might not be the case forever. We have seen many technologies that have effectively reduced the authority that national governments once had. This continues to be the case in 2018 and beyond.
For example, cryptocurrencies give one possible alternative to financial institutions and national currencies. Blockchain-based global identity presents another possible move away from centralised institutions while remaining secure. Will governments be the decision-maker when it comes to determining identity in the future? In some cases, non-government projects could bring new technologies that challenge traditional concepts of citizenship.
This is another integral part of understanding what role digital identity systems will play in the future. While many people might want to become global citizens and have digital identities, others might want to retain old systems. In order for any new identity systems to change the world, a large group of citizens must be willing to accept this change. If citizens choose these new systems over older frameworks of citizenship, it could create a greater momentum for support that governments might have to recognise. In other words, will citizens prefer government-led initiatives or privately-run projects? While the technology needs to exist and be sufficient enough to achieve results before people do make this decision, adoption and public opinion will shape how these systems continue to function.
Depending on which route the technical development and adoption of digital identity goes down, there will be some impact on the notion of decision-making power. For example, if the future of digital identity is controlled by government, some nation states might gain more power. There is also a scenario where non-government blockchain projects will give global citizens more power to decide how to participate in cross-border governance and commerce. This could lead some national governments to lose a degree of influence.
When we think about Estonia’s example of blockchain adoption, programmes typically only apply to people who are either Estonian citizens or people looking to establish a business within Estonia. While documents can be signed remotely, no contracts or information requires approval via blockchain at an international level between the governments of two or more nations/regions.
If the future of global identity is going to work, countries and/or governing bodies will have to collaborate and agree upon how systems work. There is a possibility that policies and regulations might have to change in order for recognition of digital identities to function across borders. For example, the EU and the US would most likely need to have a common understanding of how various smart contracts can be applied to meet regulations set by both.
There is a possibility that multiple identity systems (not one universal system) will actually be used by various government and non-government blockchain projects. While this does introduce competition amongst different identity systems, it also signifies the importance of collaboration and interoperability in order simplify global citizenship and ensure that issues that have traditionally created barriers can be resolved in the future of digital identity.