Web of Trust: A Taxonomy for Claims

Tristan Roberts
Nov 15, 2019 · 10 min read
Don’t be alarmed. A friendly algorithm will help you navigate the complexities of the Web of Trust. Hopefully one that isn’t just designed to sell you shit. I’m looking at you, Alexa.

This article is the first part of a series exploring how a ‘Web of Trust’ may take shape as cryptographic systems evolve. A well developed Web of Trust will allow users to make quick, informed decisions on who we might want to collaborate with on our next deal or project (or hookup?); or, alternatively, who we should steer clear of; helping you avoid the toxic individuals with whom collaboration would produce naught but mutual ruin.

This particular article will illustrate how a Web of Trust might be particularly relevant for scientists; a group that has a high need for trust, with very few institutions or practices providing it.

The initial ‘Web of Trust’ was a network of attestations about a certain encryption key being tied to a certain individual. This allowed strangers to be fairly confident they were interacting with who they believed they were, even if they had never met in person, and were just communicating over the Net.

Web 3.0 Primer

You can skip this section if you’re already crypto-savvy

Imagine being able to take your digital reputation from platform to platform; leveling up your virtual persona and unlocking benefits along the way.

This would prevent people from being ‘locked in’ (unable to exit a platform they no longer think is fair), allowing us to migrate to platforms that offer the best incentives or, at least, seem to be the least shady.

Decentralized reputation will allow us to make more informed decisions about who we choose to interact with, whether we are talking about Craigslist, eBay, AngelList, or even Tindr.

These systems are based on public/private key cryptography. Each user on this system has at least one private key, which they use to ‘sign’ their transactions, whether it be to transfer Bitcoin, or make a claim about another user. Their public key is like their ‘address’, where other people can send funds or make a claim about it.

A blockchain can record not just financial transactions, but also process and record more complex transactions, called ‘smart contracts’. The addresses of those participating in a ‘smart contract’ are typically public in conventional blockchains, meaning that it is possible to see all the transactions that a particular public key has made.


Attestations vs Claims

The first distinction we will make is between an ‘attestation’ and a ‘claim’. Both are public statements about something, and both should bear the weight of one’s reputation. However, for this taxonomy…

An attestation is meant to be an objective statement, such as:

  • Bob Ross has shown me proof that he is in control of the Ethereum address 0x…456.
  • I recorded this set of data, with these values, at this time, during this experiment.

A claim is meant to be an subjective statement, such as:

  • Bob Ross is a shitty guy.
  • This data supports the hypothesis that x determines y.

By separating objective vs subjective statements, we will be in a better position to determine if someone is full of shit, or simply has idiosyncratic taste.

If, using the examples above, someone attests that a person is related to a public address that they are not, they may very well be a ‘bad actor’ hoping to game the system.

On the other hand, if they simply think someone as lovable as Bob Ross is a ‘shitty guy’, then it may be that they have a different taste than us, and it might be prudent to avoid them, but they aren’t necessarily a bad actor with whom we should avoid all contact.

Bad claims are unavoidable as we navigate life. But a chronic history of them, however…

For the particular domain of science, this distinction between attestations and claims allows us to better recognize the difference between the data and the interpretation of the data. It’s one thing to reach a mistaken conclusion about the results of one’s experiment; it’s another to entirely fabricate one’s data. (The conflation of data, interpretation, and Truth™ in the conventional scientific process is responsible for creating a certain dogma, the odor of which most researchers seem oblivious.)

We will unpack attestations and network effects of a Web of Trust model in a future article. The remainder of this article will outline important differences in subjective claims… but first, a few issues that a Web of Trust could help ameliorate:

  • Genetic therapies are often priced in excess of a half a million dollars, for something that could be ordered from a lab to produce for $5k. As a patient, though, how do you know who to ask for help?
  • How do you determine which collaborators to engage in high risk, high reward projects with; perhaps even if one of them might be a European relying on a pseudonym due to anti-GMO laws?
  • How can we determine which scientific hypotheses might be ‘true’, without being wholly dependent upon the notably failing peer review process?
  • How can patients make informed decisions about A) whether to pursue and B) how to acquire novel treatments, without having to rely upon venture capital to bring the product to market, or waiting for the FDA to grant its approval?

Warranted Claims

A claim is a subjective statement. A claim is ‘warranted’ if both parties consented to giving each other public feedback at the end of their interaction.

This first type of claim is the one that should be weighted the most heavily. As both parties agreed to it, we can be fairly certain that the parties did in fact interact, and thus they have a strong basis for making a subjective evaluation.

An example of how ‘warranted claims’ can play out without crypto, based on my own personal experience with ‘biohacking’:

I entered into an agreement with Gabriel Licina to work on a project to replicating Sangamo’s gene therapy treatment for HIV. The agreement specifically provided that each party was not liable for any failure, EXCEPT that we could justifiably shit on each other’s social media presences if things didn’t work out.

Things didn’t work out. Both parties were at fault: I didn’t raise enough money to fully fund the project, and Gabriel spent some of the money on stuff that was outside of the project’s scope, meaning that nothing got returned. (In large part this project was an excuse to help keep his lab running, so I don’t actually have hard feelings about those expenditures.)

As we have both entered into an agreement, and as the project has run its course, Gabriel and I are now both warranted to make claims about that project on social media.

This is sort of a prototypical, non-cryptographic way of expressing a warranted claim.

How might this play out with crypto systems?

Gabriel and I would both sign off on a hybrid legal/smart contract using our Ethereum keys. The full text of the legal agreement may or may not be stored publicly ‘on chain’, if it isn’t, then at least a hash (a sort of fingerprint) should be on chain to prove that the agreement wasn’t altered later.

The smart contract could be coded in such a way that six months after both parties have signed the agreement, each participant would be able to provide public feedback on each other.

Now, when someone (in the Web 3.0 future) is interested in collaborating with Gabriel, they should be able to see my warranted claim, and any other claims, and they will be able to make a more informed decision as to whether they want to pursue a partnership.

Based Claims

A claim may be technically unwarranted (both parties did not consent to it ahead of time), but still have a meaningful basis in reality, and still be useful when evaluating our future collaborators.

A based claim’s basis should be both objective and verifiable. It might be a blockchain transaction, showing that the two parties did in fact interact at some point in time. The basis might also be social media that documents some sort of relationship (although the mutable, impermanent nature of social media raises questions). Another basis might be an attestation from a third party: for instance, perhaps Andreas signs a statement saying that Gabriel and Tristan were working together during a certain time range.

Again, let’s first examine how this would play out without crypto, in the Social Media of Web 2.0, before showing how it would be done once Web 3.0 systems evolve into existence. Remember: As Gabriel and my’s agreement was for a different project, the claims below are technically not ‘warranted’.

Primary basis: My interaction with Gabriel and Aaron during February 2018, as documented in the Vice News piece located here.

Primary claim: That collaboration with Gabriel Licina, in any matters involving substantial capital or value, ought to be avoided.

Supporting bases/attestations: A) I, Tristan Roberts, do attest that Gabriel Licina had entered into a contract with Aaron Traywick. Both parties were displeased with said contract for reasons including, but not limited to, an absurdly low salary being paid to Gabriel and Justin (for undertaking a seemingly countless number of projects). Rather than renegotiate their contract, Gabriel Licina and his associate Justin Atkin attempted to seize the means of research production without first attaining consensus among their peers. B) This Gizmodo article C) Episode 4 of Unnatural Selection

Secondary claims:

  • Gabriel + Justin’s attempt to seize the lab resulted in a number of projects being delayed for several months.
  • Money was a significant factor in this behavior (although does not seem to get mentioned by Gabriel during his account of the incident).

The above claims are subjective; it’s hard to say, for instance, how much this incident really put the projects behind. None the less, it’s information that I would want to make public, to inform others. This article, as you may have put together, is rather meta in that it contains attestations and claims, but delivered over a Web 2.0 platform.

In Web 3.0, I might, for instance, use my key to sign off on the attestation to form the basis, and then stake some Ether behind the claims that are attached to Gabriel’s address, to show potential collaborators that I am ‘serious’ when they examine Gabriel’s transaction history. Attestations and claims made could potentially be open for others to contest it, making a tree of claims.

As decentralized reputation systems are developed further, it may even be possible to place a bet that future warranted interactions between Gabriel and others will result in similar dissatisfaction, allowing me to not just put my money where my mouth is, but also gain a little profit from doings so.

Depending on the strength of the basis, a based claim may provide valuable insight, or it may be well disguised slander. Thus, we should think of them as useful clues for navigating the complexities of social reality, but not pretend that they contain indisputable truth.

Baseless Claims

The last type of claim we will examine should be weighted the least, but should not be discounted entirely.

Baseless claims are not warranted, nor do they have some sort of objective, verifiable basis at the time they are issued. This might seem like they are worthless noise, but let’s examine one comical example to the contrary.

Web 2.0 Example: MIT Technology Review reporter Antonio Regaldo ought to get fucked.

I haven’t met the guy, and have only had limited interactions on Twitter, but my gut feeling based on hearsay is that he’s lacking in empathy. This is what I mean by both unwarrranted and baseless. It’s not entirely baseless; it’s not just based on something concrete.

There are countless instances of people ‘piling on’ with public opinion; where a few leaders make negative claims about someone or something, and then the thoughtless masses follow. If someone has thousands of negative, yet baseless claims against them… it may be that that person should be avoided, or it may just be that they ran afoul of some notable shitheads (or both!).

Now, for the Web 3.0 twist…

I make the same claim, that Antonio ought to get fucked. Not only that: I stake 1ETH behind this claim. Many other people stake the opposite position. Now, if I try to withdraw that 1ETH, I would lose a certain %, as the equilibrium of this particular ‘knowledge market’ is pointing towards the refutation of the claim.

But, let’s say that I undertake a scientific study, showing how most human males experience greater empathy and lower anxiety after embodying receptivity. I link this study’s findings to the micro knowledge market, and many of those people who asserted that he should not get fucked, now fathom the contrary, and quickly change their staked position in light of the scientific evidence. Soon after, I am able to withdraw my initial 1ETH, along with some extra profit, thanks to those suckers who staked against my claim.

Leveraging Claims for Insights

If all of this seems confusing and inapplicable as heck, don’t worry: algorithms will undoubtedly be used to help us make informed decisions. Rather than having to look over Etherscan.io for a history of all transactions for a particular address, our helpful digital assistants will evaluate all the claims, weigh them according to whether they are warranted, based, or baseless, and give us a more digestible reading as to whether we should proceed with a particular deal or venture.

Here is a couple examples of how an algorithm might be able to see the forest rather than the trees:

If I have a very negative claim about someone, while everyone else only given positive claims, it’s not a huge deal… But if I have many claims that go against the norm… then I’m either idiosyncratic or just an idiot, and my claims should be weighted lower than others’.

If the majority of someone’s claims are negative, it is likely that the problem is with them.

If a particular identity has made many baseless claims, they may simply just be parroting what their thought-leaders say (or, they may very well just be a bot downvoting its creator’s competition!).

Up Next

In our next article, we will examine attestations, and examine how a Web of Trust might work in conjunction with black, gray, and white markets, with a particular focus on consumables such as ‘research molecules’ and ‘gene therapies’.

If you’re not already following me on Medium… now might be a good time to so you don’t miss out. And lastly:

Eth Donations (I take shitcoins!): 0x262b4F07e42BBc33F597fcf0d854e9DAFaf3D469

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