How NOT to build an Orwellian Reputation System (Pt. 1)

‘Rebooting the web of trust,’ a workshop taking place in San Francisco this November 3rd and 4th, is bringing together some impressive pioneers and could lead to world changing developments in the realm of online reputation systems and in the use of the blockchain.

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How NOT to build an Orwellian Reputation System (Pt. 1)

Rebooting the web of trust,’ a workshop taking place in San Francisco this November 3rd and 4th, is bringing together some impressive pioneers and could lead to world changing developments in the realm of online reputation systems and in the use of the blockchain.

An ‘advanced reading list’ of academic submissions regarding the Philosophical and the technical challenges of reputation, take the front stage of this workshop. Along side it is the first of multiple workshops, intended to generate solutions that “will have the greatest impact on the future”. Some of thought leaders on this list are, Ryan Shea, Drummond Reed, Peter Todd, Jon Callas and Phil Zimmerman, to name a few.

While the list of participants is private, and the workshops are invite only, the event has been the topic of discussion in slack groups and social media, where the few who dare tackle this very important topic lurk.

The workshop is lead by Christopher Allen, Internet Cryptography Pioneer and Blockchain developer. It is also being promoted by Matthew Schutte, entrepreneur and speaker, who among other things has a very short and insightful overview of the crucial importance of privacy innovation, as well as the nature and value of reputation, during a conference at Voice and Exit.

Reputation is such an essential part of human interaction that it is easy to take for granted. It can simply be looked at as a way of knowing ahead of time the character and capabilities of another person, with whom we might want to trade or interact with in some way.

Being able to reasonably predict some one’s behavior and know what possible areas of conflict we will face can save us social beings a great deal of time and hardship. These are otherwise hidden in the darkness of a pseudonym on Localbitcoins, or some brand name of a company we’ve never heard of.

The core assumption of a reputation system is that past behaviour is a great predictor of future behavior. This principal has served human beings fairly well for thousands of years, and has great potential for good, but as Orwell warned in his epic novel 1984, the potential downfalls of top down, enforced standards of behavior could end in a “boot stamping on a human face—forever.

So, in the hopes of dodging the massive and bloody bullet of building the infrastructure of a techno-totalitarian state, let us discuss how NOT to build an Orwellian reputation system - as I see it.

Bob, the Silk Road merchant

For the sake of illustrating this amusing and complex subject, let’s follow the life of Bob, our hypothetical Marijuana dealer in the darknet, who has decided to make his living under a reputation standard called #weedisdope.

Bob believes that there’s nothing morally wrong with buying, selling or ingesting this “innocuous” plant, and he is so passionate about the topic, as well as intrigued by the profits, that he has decided to become a pseudonymous Marijuana dealer in Silk Road 5.0.

Step one: Make it decentralized

Like many before him, Bob has learnt that given the hostile environment that is the dark net, he must base his decision on who he trades with on the most secure of systems and platforms. His enemies are, after all,  no cute kittens but vicious wolves hungry to put their claws on every Bit of coin he makes.

So, given that he lives in the year 2022, he must choose a developed and mature reputation system to rely on. And as we all know, there are not many records of human behavior as secure as the blockchain.

This invention we are so familiar with, is effectively a memory bank that can not and should not be made controllable by one entity. The integrity and quality of the information it holds needs to be highly secure, as it is the foundation of his business and the business of millions of others by the time he comes to choose his career path.

If this record was to fall prey to the wrong hands, it could spell disaster to the tune of say, selling big bags of Ganja to a ‘buyer’ who counterfeited his reputation score, and can now easily execute a double spend with Bob. He stands misled and vulnerable, thanks to a weak and compromised reputation database.

So tl;dr: use a very secure blockchain.

Step two: Don’t assume you are right about what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is

Many people, Bob included have very specific beliefs about what behavior is morally neutral, admirable or straight out evil. And often enough, people’s beliefs about what is good or bad are in conflict.

If the engineers of RepCoin, the reputation system that is most popular in 2022, had decided that #weedisNOTdope. And had built the platform such that the world could only judge others based on this very specific and one sided standard of behavior, then Bob would be without access to the incredible resource that RepCoin provides.

After all, we are the pioneers of our time. Engineers and first adopters of something as powerful as programmable money and a memory bank that can not be forgotten or destroyed.  The edifices that we build today, will be occupied by humanity for decades to come. What claim or right do we have to try and enforce our beliefs about morality on them, even if through technological designs?

While some decisions at the engineering and security level will have to be made, I believe it is essential that those with the ability to build this kind of technology have great humility about the effect their design choices can have on humanity.

And I can not think of a better solution to this problem of reputation standards then to allow users to arbitrarily - as if they were adding a hashtag to a tweet - create their own reputation markers, and go on to sign their transaction with Bob with a marker both buyer and seller believe in, a simple #weedisdope.

The ideal reputation system, I believe should simply inform parties about what others value and despise, and how many times they have walked the talk. In other words, how many times Bob made transactions signed through p2p asymmetric cryptography with a celebration of #weedisdope or whatever the parties involved believe to be fair behavior, proven by their trade.

Last but not least, Bob will likely not be everyone’s customer. There will be people who rather have nothing to do with #weedisdope, and so, it should be up to them to control what identities and values are within their ecosystem. Similar to how family filters work in search engines today.

We would not dare ask Google to forget all the porn or overshared cat pictures it knows so well, hiding them from us until we ask is good enough.

Continue onto part two of How NOT to build an Orwellian reputation system.


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