Jefferson Memorial

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Blockchain

“…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

There’s some debate but many argue that Jefferson’s key phrase on our inalienable rights in the Declaration of Independence borrowed on John Locke’s phrase of “Life, Liberty and Property”.

In 1776, property and happiness were inextricably linked. Property, through agriculture and other means, was a way to build one’s livelihood, one’s financial security and enable one’s personal safety. It was also linked to a sense of one’s potential and opportunity.

Today, a large part of what makes the USA an economic power is our property system, including intellectual property. Economist Hernando de Soto has suggested that property rights and clear laws are what differentiate first world and the third world economies.

The main message of de Soto (viaWikipedia):

“no nation can have a strong market economy without adequate participation in an information framework that records ownership of property and other economic information. Unreported, unrecorded economic activity results in many small entrepreneurs who lack legal ownership of their property, making it difficult for them to obtain credit, sell the business, or expand. They cannot seek legal remedies to business conflicts in court, since they do not have legal ownership. Lack of information on income prevents governments from collecting taxes and acting for the public welfare.”

The favelas (slums) of Brazil you may have seen in the background during the World Cup are a vast sea of homes with no information framework of ownership (although Brazil has made efforts to fix this). The problem with this vast swath of extralegal squatting, de Soto might argue, is the inability to leverage those small pieces of property into anything larger without information about them. You can’t take out a loan against something you don’t own. So people wind up stuck in a property system outside the official law.

Today, our access to data and information is a large part of our livelihood and much data ownership resides outside of any law. So, too, our happiness is irrevocably and inseparably intertwined with access to information.

Data is rapidly becoming a new asset class that is largely unprotected, with few rights associated with it. We are in feudal times of data. The owners of the data castles have the power, and we are data peasants in the service to our data feudal lords.

“They don’t want much, those Stacks (Google, Apple, Facebook, etc.). Just your identity, your allegiance, and all of your data. Just to be your sole provider of messaging, media, merchandise, and metadata. Just to take part in as much of your online existence as they possibly can, and maybe to one day mediate your every interaction with the world around you, online or off.”

But it many ways, much like feudalism, this era may be coming to an end. There are several solutions arising, new digital countries growing up to protect digital assets.

Europe is creating a separate internet, dubbed the “Splinternet” they declared they need to protect themselves from U.S. Spying.

Respect Network seeks to create a new internet governed by respect, and a new set of community rules surrounding personal data.

We need to find a way, much as we did with real property, for data to be made valuable through trusted exchange and with clear ownership rights. We need a new Declaration of Independence (of Data). We need freedom to pursue our own data. It could be something like creative commons for data, but I suspect the answer is emerging in the blockchain.

If you haven’t heard of the blockchain, it’s the key piece of technology that allows bitcoin to operate, but it also appears to have big potential in defining ownership of digital assets.

Artists and others are using an app called “Proof of Existence” to declare that they have a digital file at a point in time, without showing what’s in the file. This doesn’t confer ownership, just possession, for now, but folks are working on ways to build ownership.

To grossly simplify, the blockchain is a public ledger that allows you to privately track ownership of digital items without a third party. The network does the work of validation. The problem digital currencies attempt to solve is stopping the copy machine of the web. In certain circumstances at least, putting digital assets on the blockchain can stop the copy machine, because there is no data, only encrypted representations of the data that can’t flow backwards back to the original data, but you can test that the encrypted representations are valid, so you have a proof of existence of a set of information.

One of the problems with any data and digital ownership, of course, is that the “internet is a copying machine”. What the blockchain may be able to do, is to make ownership a bigger part of data. This kind of potential for creating a system of digital property on the blockchain could make items on the blockchain a kind of digital leverage, as system that “an information framework that records ownership of property and other economic information”. Releasing the power of individuals to carve out digital fenceposts, releasing us from our squatting on the systems of others.

A CoinDesk post by says it clearly:

“Verification is an example of the block chain’s potential outside of just monetary innovation.

That’s something venture capitalist Fred Wilson is interested in, and recently said:

‘Right now you need someone to be the arbiter of identity — either Facebook, Twitter or Google […] I think you could do the same thing with a block chain architecture.’

The block chain could help to better prove digital identity and property, giving people more ownership of personal data.

Companies like Google, for example, promote the ability for users to control data from its services. Facebook recently added the option to login to services anonymously to reduce the possibility of user data being spread out among third-party applications.

However, the fact of the matter remains, those services are centralized and always will be, while block chain technologies are better suited for distributed cryptographic trust systems. ”

Selling our personal data means, more and more every day, that we are selling our autonomy and our ability to pursue happiness. Our attention is grabbed by the big marketers in the sky. It is a kind of data taxation without a whole lot of representation.…

Perhaps there will be a new digital property system emerging, one that requires that we establish ownership before we can use digital assets. Much like our founding fathers, our digital selves, our digital property and our happiness are inextricably linked. Perhaps we need to declare our personal data, and our ability to own it, an inalienable right. New mechanisms are emerging to protect our data and our rights, but the law will need to follow.