Using a Theory of Justice to Build a Better Web3


Building a better internet won't happen by chance or simply maximizing freedom. We have to build systems that support justice. How can we do that?


Philosophy discussions are the black hole of identity. Once you get in, you can't get out. Nevertheless, I find that I'm drawn to them. I'm a big proponent of self-sovereign identity (SSI) precisely because I believe that autonomy and agency are a vital part of building a new web that works for everyone. Consequently, I read Web3 Is Our Chance to Make a Better Internet with interest because it applied John Rawls's thought experiment known as the "veil of ignorance1," from his influential 1971 work A Theory of Justice to propose three things we can do in Web3 to build a more fair internet:

  1. Promote self-determination and agency
  2. Reward participation, not just capital
  3. Incorporate initiatives that benefit the disadvantaged

Let's consider each of these in turn.

Promoting Self-Determination and Agency

As I wrote in Web3: Self-Sovereign Authority and Self-Certifying Protocols,

Web3, self-sovereign authority enabled by self-certifying protocols, gives us a mechanism for creating a digital existence that respects human dignity and autonomy. We can live lives as digitally embodied beings able to operationalize our digital relationships in ways that provide rich, meaningful interactions. Self-sovereign identity (SSI) and self-certifying protocols provide people with the tools they need to operationalize their self-sovereign authority and act as peers with others online. When we dine at a restaurant or shop at a store in the physical world, we do not do so within some administrative system. Rather, as embodied agents, we operationalize our relationships, whether they be long-lived or nascent, by acting for ourselves. Web3, built in this way, allows people to act as full-fledged participants in the digital realm.

There are, of course, ways to screw this up. Notably, many Web3 proponents don't really get identity and propose solutions to identity problems that are downright dangerous and antithetical to their aim of self-determination and agency. Writing about Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs), Dave Birch said this:

The connection between digital identity and digital currency is critical. We must get the identity side of the equation right before we continue with the money side of the equation. As I told the Lords' committee at the very beginning of my evidence, "I am a very strong supporter of retail digital currency, but I am acutely aware of the potential for a colossal privacy catastrophe".
From Identity And The New Money
Referenced 2022-05-18T16:14:50-0600

Now, whether you see a role for CBDCs in Web3 or see them as the last ditch effort of the old guard to preserve their relevance, Dave's points about identity are still true regardless of what currency systems you support. We don't necessarily want identity in Web3 for anti-money laundering and other fraud protection mechanisms (although those might be welcomed in a Web3 world that isn't a hellhole), but because identity is the basis for agency. And if we do it wrong, we destroy the very thing we're trying to promote. Someone recently said (I wish I had a reference) that using your Ethereum address for your online identity is like introducing yourself at a party using your bank balance. A bit awkward at least.

Rewarding Participation

If you look at the poster children of Web3, cryptocurrencies and NFTs, the record is spotty for how well these systems reward participation rather than rewarding early investors. But that doesn't have to be the case. In Why Build in Web3, Jad Esber and Scott Duke Kominers describe the "Adam Bomb" NFT:

For example, The Hundreds, a popular streetwear brand, recently sold NFTs themed around their mascot, the "Adam Bomb." Holding one of these NFTs gives access to community events and exclusive merchandise, providing a way for the brand's fans to meet and engage with each other — and thus reinforcing their enthusiasm. The Hundreds also spontaneously announced that it would pay royalties (in store credit) to owners of the NFTs associated to Adam Bombs that were used in some of its clothing collections. This made it roughly as if you could have part ownership in the Ralph Lauren emblem, and every new line of polos that used that emblem would give you a dividend. Partially decentralizing the brand's value in this way led The Hundreds's community to feel even more attached to the IP and to go out of their way to promote it — to the point that some community members even got Adam Bomb tattoos.
From Why Build in Web3
Referenced 2022-05-17T14:42:53-0600

NFTs are a good match for this use case because they represent ownership and are transferable. The Hundreds doesn't likely care if someone other than the original purchaser of an Adam Bomb NFT uses it to get a discount so long as they can authenticate it. Esber and Kominers go on to say:

Sharing ownership allows for more incentive alignment between products and their derivatives, creating incentives for everyone to become a builder and contributor.

NFTs aren't the only way to reward participation. Another example is the Helium Network. Helium is a network of more than 700,000 LoRaWAN hotspots around the world. Operators of the hotspots, like me, are rewarded in HNT tokens for providing the hotspot and network backhaul using a method called "proof of coverage" that ensures the hotspot is active in a specific geographic area. The reason the network is so large is precisely because Helium uses its cryptocurrency to reward participants for the activities that grow the network and keep it functioning.

Building web3 ecosystems that reward participation is in stark contrast to Web 2.0 platforms that treat their participants as mere customers (at best) or profit from surveillance capitalism (at worst).

Incorporating Initiatives that Benefit the Disadvantaged

The HBR article acknowledges that this is the hardest one to enable using technology. That's because this is often a function of governance. One of the things we tried to do at Sovrin Foundation was live true to the tagline: Identity for All. For example, we spent a lot of time on governance for just this reason. For example, many of the participants in the Foundation worked on initiatives like financial inclusion and guardianship to ensure the systems we were building and promoting worked for everyone. These efforts cost us the support of some of our more "business-oriented" partners and stewards who just wanted to get to the business of quickly building a credential system that worked for their needs. But we let them walk away rather than cutting back on governance efforts in support of identity for all.

The important parts of Web3 aren't as sexy as ICOs and bored apes, but they are what will ensure we build something that supports a digital life worth living. Web 2.0 didn't do so well in the justice department. I believe Web3 is our chance to build a better internet, but only if we promote self-determination, reward participation, and build incentives that benefit the disadvantaged as well as those better off.


  1. The "veil of ignorance" asks a system designer to consider what system they would design if they were in a disadvantaged situation, rather than their current situation. For example, if you're designing a cryptocurrency, assume you're one of the people late to the game. What design decisions would make the system fair for you in that situation?

Photo Credit: Artists-impressions-of-Lady-Justice from Lonpicman (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Please leave comments using the sidebar.

Last modified: Wed Jul 6 11:49:02 2022.