Towards an Ecosystem of the Future by Property Rights
Towards an Ecosystem of the Future by Property Rights
Environmentalists advocate for the health of the natural environment through changes in public policy, for example groundwater management, and changes in individual behaviors such as recycling or donating land to public trusts, or introducing concepts like property rights to promote sustainability and stewardship of resources. This positive effect of property rights on the commons was demonstrated in 1960 by the economist Ronald Coase, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize for his theorem.
Similarly, the collective of internet users acting as digital environmentalists advocate for the health of the digital environment. Both as individuals and entities, they self-regulate, champion policies such as net neutrality that protect the digital environment and its users, and invent technologies that aid in empowering the inhabitants of the digital environment against unethical uses of the resources of the internet and Internet of Things (IoT).
It is necessary to build on the analogy of the natural environment for the digital environment. For many of us, by nature of our heavy use of the internet, mobile devices, smart accessories, and social media, the ecosystem that we inhabit is simultaneously both of these environments. By acknowledging these two, we can ensure the health of both. While our current ecosystem is these two distinct yet simultaneous environments, our far future technological and biological progress could lie in an ecosystem where there is no distinction between the natural and the digital.
Hence, establishing and adopting the concept of clean technology for the digital environment with the same intentions as it is used in the physical and natural environment is a forethought ensuring a healthy digital environment of the future. The efforts of resource management and sustainability of the environmental movement has generated clean technologies that work towards bettering the quality of the environment and lessening our negative impacts on it. Comparably we begin to see that many companies that have arisen for the necessity of a healthy digital environment can also be considered clean-tech for the internet.
These clean-tech companies span a spectrum of how they handle resources (data) in the digital environment:
Providing absolute privacy where little data as possible is put in the environment, like TOR browser and Signal;
Managing the data that is generated and exchanged, like identity management and self-sovereign identity with OpenID and uPort, password and security management such as LastPass and DashLane, or social media managers like Buffer, or an IoT manager like IFTTT;
Reinstating peer-to-peer trust by cryptographic proof and immutability of data by using blockchain technology, like Bitcoin.
In an ideal and healthy digital environment we know what is what, who is who, what belongs to whom, and what came from where. This can mean verifying data, verifying identity, verifying ownership, and verifying provenance of data, all of which can be private and anonymous. Any combination of the clean internet technologies outlined above aid us in being digital environmentalists and to tailor how we manage our data. However, currently our data is part of a commons—we’ve generated it through our use of internet companies like social media and our use of IoT technologies, but our data is sitting in a common grazing field for these companies to sell for profit. Where are our property rights to this data commons that is open to all for profit?
One of the most impactful essays for biologists is Garrett Hardin’s 1968 essay where he coins ‘the tragedy of the commons’ and introduces the concept of property rights to avert it. The example he gives of the tragedy is of the overgrazing of a common land by each herder who has access to it. Self-interest in the commons is not necessarily in the interest of the commoners as a whole. Since then, it has been repeatedly studied and proven that well-defined property rights applied to the commons creates incentives for each owner to act as a steward for the resource.
With the agency of ownership comes the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the digital environment.
To answer the “tragedy of the commons” in the digital environment we need a new clean technology for the internet that gives us property rights to our data. These rights are not just for preventing ‘overgrazing’ by others, but to restore our power to our privacy with private property as opposed to common property, and to enable us to generate wealth from our data if we choose to. So the fourth type of internet clean-tech introduced above would be:
Enabling property rights to the data we generate.
This is what Bitmark does. It enables a transparent chain of ownership and attribution across the internet and Internet of Things that can be authenticated by anyone. With the agency of ownership comes the responsibility of maintaining the integrity of the digital environment of our collective data and digital assets.
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Defining Property in the Digital Environment. Part Three.
Bitmark, the property system for the digital environment.
In Part One of the series we took a look at the history of property while Part Two made the connection on how the prerequisite for privacy is property rights. This final post introduces a solution for defining digital property, Bitmark.
Bitmarks as property titles
The Bitmark system achieves extremely low transaction costs by supplanting conventional centrally controlled property systems with a shared, distributed ledger for recording digital property titles, or bitmarks, for any digital asset. A bitmark consists of four basic elements:
an asset fingerprint
an owner account
a digital signature
A bitmark’s asset fingerprint is created by applying a cryptographic hash function to a digital asset. The resulting fingerprint is an alphanumeric value that uniquely and permanently identifies the digital asset. The asset metadata consists of the property’s name and relevant attributes, as defined by the bitmark’s original issuer. The owner account identifies the current owner’s Bitmark account number, which is a cryptographic public key. The owner may choose to publicly link his or her identity with this account number, depending on the desired level of privacy. A digital signature is a secure mark of authenticity that is appended to the bitmark when first issued or whenever it is transferred to a new owner. One way to think of a bitmark is as an unforgeable chain of digital signatures that form the property’s provenance.
The Bitmark Blockchain
To enable this recording of property titles across the full depth and breadth of the Internet, Bitmark supplements existing methods for tracking provenance with a globally accessible property ledger known as the Bitmark blockchain. Blockchain technology is the key innovation of the Bitcoin currency and refers to a digital ledger that is publicly yet anonymously shared to all members of a peer-to-peer network. The Bitmark blockchain contains every single property title and ownership transfer ever recorded in the Bitmark system. This Internet-native ownership registry allows the Bitmark system to satisfy all the functional requirements of conventional property systems in a single public data resource:
At a more granular level, each bitmark consists of a chain of transfer records that weaves in and out of different blocks of transactions to create its provenance. The authenticity of each property’s provenance is maintained by continuously verifying this chain of owner signatures.
As an example, consider the figure above, in which a Bitmark user named Alice issues a bitmark for a specific digital asset. Her Bitmark app first uses a cryptographic hashing function to generate a unique fingerprint for the digital asset along with an issuance record for the bitmark which lists Alice as the owner. Alice’s app also digitally signs the issuance record with her private key. Once it has been verified by the Bitmark network, this issuance record is aggregated into latest block of the Bitmark blockchain (let’s say block 13). When Alice later wishes to transfer ownership of the property to Bob, Alice directs her Bitmark app to create a transfer record that contains a link back to her previous issuance record, designates Bob as the new owner, and digitally signs the transfer record with her private key. Once this transfer record has been verified by the network to contain an authentic signature from the current owner (Alice), the transfer record is recorded in block 20 of the blockchain, at which point ownership passes to Bob. This method of requiring the current owner to digitally sign ownership transfers creates an unforgeable provenance for a property. The Bitmark system has been architected to support multiple digital signing methods, including digital signatures that guard against the possibility of future attacks from post-quantum computers.
Strength Through Decentralization
Unlike conventional property systems that rely on a handful of trusted government officials to act as centralized gatekeepers, the Bitmark blockchain is an open and transparent property system that is strengthened through the active participation of anyone on the Internet. The integrity of Bitmark’s open-source blockchain is ensured by a peer-to-peer network of voluntary participants running the Bitmark node software called bitmarkd. These software nodes are incentivized to participate in verifying Bitmark property transactions through the possibility of winning monetary and property rewards.
A more diverse and decentralized participant community means a more robust property system for everyone.
Every Bitmark property transfer requires a nominal transaction fee. One reason for this fee is to discourage vandals from spamming the blockchain. A second reason is to motivate the participating nodes to independently compete against one another to be the first node to verify the current block of transactions and “win” that block. A node wins a block by solving a difficult computational problem called a proof-of-work, which functions like a lottery to randomly select a winner.
Whenever a node announces itself to the network as the winner of a block, it presents its result so that the entire peer network can instantly check the proof-of-work and validate the block’s transactions. After confirming the block’s validity, non-winning nodes “vote” for the winner by adding the block as the next block in their local blockchains. The block winner is then awarded all the aggregated transaction fees for that block. As an added incentive, the Bitmark system treats the blocks that comprise its blockchain as digital properties in and of themselves, and the block winner is also issued a bitmark for that block. Block owners are entitled to collect royalties on all future property transfers for properties whose issuance records are recorded in their blocks. The ability for nodes to win ownership of blocks not only creates a further incentive for node participation but also reduces transaction costs for adding digital properties to the Bitmark system to near zero.
This strategy of rewarding an open network of peers for competitively verifying the results of one another’s work creates an impregnable security model that is an emergent property of the individual peer interactions themselves. Unlike centralized property systems, which suffer from increased negative externalities as larger populations exploit the shared resource, Bitmark’s decentralized blockchain grows more resilient and valuable as the network grows. As a method for encouraging the widest possible participant base, the Bitmark blockchain has been designed to resist centralized monopolization of network node resources. Unlike preceding blockchains, many of which have become vulnerable to the outsized influence of a few well-financed mining pools, the Bitmark blockchain has implemented a proof-of-work algorithm that has proven itself largely impervious to the high-end custom mining hardware that has led to the inequitable concentration of Bitcoin mining power, thereby diversifying node participation and fostering cost-competitiveness among independent participant nodes. Wherever possible, Bitmark has endeavored to build upon the lessons of pioneering blockchain systems to broaden network participation because a more diverse and decentralized participant community means a more robust property system for everyone.
Data Privacy Through Digital Property
Bitmark affirms individual privacy rights within the digital environment by, first, allowing anyone to create private property from any type of digital asset and, second, by implementing strong encryption measures for the digital assets themselves. The ability to convert any type of digital assets — whether content or metadata — into private property makes any unauthorized data access a violation of one’s property rights, thereby providing an added measure of legal defense against unwarranted search and seizure of digital properties. Asserting explicit private property claims are particularly advantageous in incipient domains where digital property rights remain murky, such as device location data, Internet-of-Things traffic, or collaboratively authored social media content. As more of our daily activities are inconspicuously scattered across different third-party cloud servers, Bitmark offers a mechanism for asserting clear ownership claims to personal data, even in cases where individuals have voluntarily consented to provide their data to third-party services.
There will undoubtedly be cases where governments or other entities succeed in circumventing Bitmark’s legal and technical privacy protections and obtain access to owners’ properties, whether through legitimate due process, abuses of power, or radical political upheaval. History is replete with examples of asset forfeiture, eminent domain, expropriation, and nationalization, in which the powers that be have forcefully seized selected populations’ properties and subsequently reallocated their property rights. One of the glaring liabilities of government-administered property systems is their inherent susceptibility to the vagaries of political climates. By providing a shared global property ledger independent from any single institution, regime, or hegemony, the Bitmark blockchain serves as a permanent and politically agnostic record of ownership claims. While the blockchain can never prevent the possibility of government confiscation of one’s assets, it does provide an enduring record of ownership claims that can serve as grounds for future contestation of property rights should political conditions change.
In addition to providing increased legal defensibility of digital properties, Bitmark employs strong technical measures for protecting digital assets during transfer and storage. By default, Bitmark encrypts all digital assets so that only verified property owners can access their properties. Whenever a property’s bitmark is transferred to a new owner, the corresponding asset is encrypted then transferred so that only the new owner can access it. This method of end-to-end encryption affords asset protection for local or remote storage in addition to safe asset transfer over the Internet or across peer-to-peer file-sharing networks.
Additionally, the Bitmark system protects owners’ identities by default. Even though every bitmark issuance and transfer record is freely accessible in the public Bitmark blockchain, these records only contain references to owners’ cryptographic public keys, which function as pseudonymous identifiers devoid of any personal information. In cases where owners wish to have their accounts tied to their personal identities, they can opt to publicly link their Bitmark public key to other verifiable means of identification, including web domains, Twitter accounts, and GitHub accounts. This combination of asserting private property rights over digital assets as a legal safeguard for data privacy in conjunction with leveraging strong encryption protocols for protecting the privacy and integrity of the digital assets achieves a level of privacy protection commensurate with long-standing protections for physical properties.
Bitmark allows creators to exert clear ownership claims to digital properties so that they can be fairly recognized and compensated for their efforts… Similarly, Bitmark extends real property rights to consumers by granting them full control over the disposition of their properties.
Towards a Healthy Digital Environment
The Internet’s earliest pioneers and homesteaders demonstrated little regard for something as prosaic and establishmentarian as property rights. To them, the early Internet held the promise of a vast, utopian frontier where humans could transcend the age-old restrictions of physical existence and come together in an unfettered society of the mind. For these early explorers, the Internet’s lack of property rights was not a bug, but a feature. Yet for all the romantic allure of frontiers, the Internet has turned out to be a pretty rough place, precisely because it lacks the rule of law that has developed to protect individual rights within modern societies. In frontiers, more often than not, might makes right, and one person’s new-found liberation is another’s negative externality.
The Internet has democratized communication to such a degree that today anyone with a networked device can instantly connect to hundreds of millions of people. A teenager with a smartphone and a Facebook account can become an Internet sensation overnight. But for most of its existence, the Internet has not possessed a similarly democratized means for valuing what happens in its spaces. E-commerce exists, of course, but primarily only as high-friction articulation points between the Internet and conventional financial systems. It is ironic that credit cards, whose security model hinges on absolute privacy of account numbers, have become the default payment method for the Internet. When limited to the physical point-of-sale payments for which credit cards were originally designed, their fraud risk was manageable. Credit card designers never anticipated that people would voluntarily give their credit card numbers to anonymous entities on the Internet. Retrofitting the ill-suited credit card system to underpin e-commerce has required a monumental centralization of technical and commercial infrastructure, which has largely come at the expense of increased fees for merchants and greater incursions on individual customer privacy than are necessary for the lion’s share of online transactions.
If one considers the level of decentralization and privacy afforded by simple physical cash, e-commerce gateways represent a large leap away from the decentralized spirit of the Internet rather than a step toward it. Only with the advent of Bitcoin in 2008 did the Internet have its own truly endogenous currency — a unit of exchange as decentralized as the Internet itself. Suddenly, anyone with a networked device could freely engage in the kinds of financial transactions that had previously been the exclusive domain of sovereign states and their monetary trustees. Suddenly, the frontier had a native means for anyone in the world to exchange money as safely and privately as one might exchange a text message or selfie.
Just as e-commerce sites offered an intermediate remedy to the problem of payments on the Internet, “digital rights management” (DRM) has served as a stopgap for the lack of an Internet-native property system. However, DRM concentrates too much power in the hands of a few centralized gatekeepers at the expense of individual property rights for everyone else. Although DRM platforms position themselves as altruistically doing the heavy lifting required to make the digital economy work, the reality is that DRM platforms only serve their own interests by further locking both creators and consumers into their platforms. While DRM offers the semblance of digital property rights, in actuality DRM functions more as an extralegal police force that — as cases like Amazon’s 1984 incident have made clear — is solely concerned with hamfisted enforcement of its own platform policies, even at the expense of trampling over long-established individual property rights.
Conversely, property rights offer an elegant solution that has already evolved to be decentralized in the same way that physical currency is already decentralized. Centuries of legal precedents have already balanced property rights to protect both creators and owners. What is needed, therefore, is not the engineering of a new kind of police force for the digital environment but rather an Internet-native property system that brings already established property rights to digital assets. What is needed is a system that allows anyone to safely and easily claim and transfer property rights in the digital environment as safely and easily as they can transfer physical properties.
Bitmark has built this property system for the digital environment. Particularly with the emergence of the Internet-of-Things, we are realizing that the Internet is not some idealized, disembodied, virtual realm that is discontinuous with our physical realities. Rather, the Internet is deeply embedded in our physical world and increasingly orders and controls its relations. This convergence between physical and digital environments makes establishing clarity around digital property rights all the more urgent.
The Internet can no longer be governed by a frontier code. The resultant negative externalities — from widespread privacy intrusions to rampant online piracy to entire asset classes mired in dead capital — are just too numerous and too acute to remain unaddressed. We have reached a tipping point at which we must pose the same question of the digital environment that we have previously asked of our physical environment: Are we creating the kind of world that we want future generations to inherit?
Bitmark both strengthens and expands the Internet’s essentially decentralized, open, and transparent ethos. The Bitmark blockchain supplants the byzantine jumble of archaic, expensive, and incompatible state-controlled property systems with a single cryptographically secure, extremely low-cost, and globally accessible system for tracking properties and provenance. By bringing both market forces and the rule of law to the digital environment, Bitmark allows creators to exert clear ownership claims to digital properties so that they can be fairly recognized and compensated for their efforts. Similarly, Bitmark extends real property rights to consumers by granting them full control over the disposition of their properties. As an all-inclusive property system that respects and accommodates jurisdictional differences, Bitmark broadens the types of commerce that can occur, thereby reducing the expediency of solutions that result in negative externalities. This ability to extend economic participation to every corner of the Internet creates value for the larger global economy by transforming the digital environment’s deepening morass of negative externalities into a new property boom capable of powering the next major economic revolution.
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Defining Property in the Digital Environment. Part Two.
Defining Property in the Digital Environment. Part Two.
The First Principles of Digital Property
In Part One of the series we took a look at the history of property. In this post we begin with a fundamental question, What is property?
What is Property?
At its simplest level, a property is an asset plus a property title. While most people probably consider property to be the stuff that they own, property is technically defined as the rules governing access to and control of assets, whether those assets are land, means of production, inventions, or other creative works. Within every society, laws known as property rights regulate which entities can assert ownership claims to which assets and what rights come with such property claims:
A valid ownership claim functions as a “bundle of rights” for a specific property and can include such rights as:
the right to exclusive possession
the right to exclusive use and enclosure
the right to transfer ownership (conveyance)
the right to use as collateral to secure a debt (hypothecation)
the right to subdivide (partition)
Property rights are neither absolute nor static; they can vary widely across different societies and can change over time. In Medieval Europe, common law considered all water resources as being statically tied to the land rights in which they were located, such that landholders owned parts of rivers with full accompanying rights. Over time, property rights for water resources have generally changed from being land-based to use-based, thereby allowing non-landowners to hold enforceable property rights. Also consider how different national flavors of political and economic ideologies, such as capitalism, socialism, and communism, have differently dictated who can own which properties, e.g., communism mandating that all means of production can only be owned by the state.
Within most property rights regimes, a property title is the legal instrument by which an entity claims ownership of an asset. Property titles are often embodied in a formal legal document, such as a real estate deed or a motor vehicle title, which serve as physical evidence of the possessor’s claim to property rights.
Property titles are the clearest legal means for defining private property rights.
One function of the property title is to uniquely identify the asset being claimed, most commonly by recording distinctive feature sets, such as geographic coordinates or geological features for land, or serial numbers, such as vehicle identification numbers (VIN) for motor vehicles. The moment that properties lose this unique identification, they become interchangeable commodities that behave more like money than like property. In order for money to circulate seamlessly and easily within a community, it must be completely fungible: It needs to be mutually interchangeable, functionally indistinguishable, and completely impersonal. The moment someone values one dollar bill more than another is the moment the dollar bill ceases to be money and starts to be property. However, the opposite is true for property. To establish an enduring record of a property’s authenticity, an asset’s unique identifier must be recorded in the property title as a permanent and immutable pointer to the asset, such that the asset can always be identified from its corresponding property title.
A second function of a property title is to make the bundle of property rights portable by acting as a container that allows its rights to be transferred from one owner to another. For assets that require a property title, transfers of ownership must be publicly recorded via a centralized government entity, such as a county land registrar or a state department of motor vehicles, in order for the transfer of property rights to be legally recognized. This history of ownership, or provenance, is most often tracked via a formal property system, which records the complete provenance of every registered property:
Piracy and Property Rights
In an ideal world, every property would have a property title. Property titles are the clearest legal means for defining private property rights. At the simplest level, property is provenance. The ability to demonstrate clean title is what protects one’s investment in a property by guaranteeing strong provenance. However, current property systems suffer from high transaction costs, which is why property titles traditionally have been reserved for physical properties whose valuations are high enough to justify the property title costs, such as real estate, vehicles, or works of art. However, if these transaction costs could be reduced to near zero, property titles could be issued for any asset, thereby clarifying property rights and further reducing negative externalities resulting from ambiguous ownership claims.
The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto Polar has gone so far as to argue that, particularly in developing regions, the lack of access to robust property rights systems is the primary underlying cause of many nations’ most urgent negative externalities. According to De Soto, this inability to demonstrate legal ownership of assets compels many citizens, particularly small entrepreneurs, to seek extralegal remedies for their business problems since traditional means of judicial redress are only available to legal property owners. This massive exclusion from property rights systems results in the emergence of two parallel economies with disparate rules and risks: the official legal economy and a makeshift extralegal economy. It is the flourishing of extralegal shadow economies that generates many of the widespread negative externalities for their larger societies. De Soto coined the term “dead capital” to describe assets locked into such extralegal economies since their lack of property rights explicitly excludes them from becoming wealth-generating property within the larger global economy.
Within the digital environment, there exists a similar extralegal shadow economy in the form of online piracy of copyrighted works. While it is tempting to depict the rise of piracy as an unfortunate side effect of contemporary digital technologies, copyright infringement is as old as copyright itself. However, the recent prevalence of online piracy begs the question: What is it about the current state of digital assets that impels people, who in any other context would never commit crimes of piracy or theft, to engage in acts of piracy? While there are undoubtedly cases of piracy that are a simple matter of people wanting to get something without paying for it, De Soto’s research suggests that, more often than not, such recourse to extralegal solutions stems from too few property rights rather than too many. In the absence of readily available property rights for desired digital assets, otherwise law-abiding citizens resort to piracy to get what they want. Consider that a large portion of piracy occurs in countries that lack international licensing agreements to access high-demand digital assets. A more inclusive and universally accessible property system with low transaction costs that establishes clear property rights for digital assets could radically reshape the current piracy landscape by transforming disenfranchised pirates into invested property owners.
Privacy in the Digital Environment
Finally, it is important to recognize that, in the case of digital assets, there is a significant convergence of private property rights and rights to personal privacy. These seemingly unrelated sets of rights were once intrinsically linked. Historically, the ability to circumscribe an area of land as one’s own created an adequate level of protection of personal privacy through defense against unsolicited trespass. Thus, the fundamental right to private property also served as protection to personal privacy by clearly defining exclusive access rights to properties.
As new technologies have developed, courts have continuously needed to reinterpret the relationship between private property and privacy rights beyond the boundaries of physical properties by extending privacy protections to “people, not places.” These protections have included rights to privacy for posted correspondence, phone conversations, and any form of personal communication in which the content is presumed to be private. Unfortunately, however, these core personal privacy protections have not been as reliably applied to the Internet and personal data. A primary reason for these shortcomings is that most privacy laws are focused solely on protecting the content of digital communication while totally disregarding privacy protections for user metadata, which is often more revealing than the actual content itself. As an example, consider the fact that a mobile device’s detailed log of user location data is usually not protected, despite the fact that the ability to surveil someone’s daily movement patterns is, in most cases, a much more threatening privacy intrusion than monitoring any authored content transmitted from the device.
Online data privacy faces an additional complication with the continued popularization of social media applications and a growing trend towards centralized, third-party cloud computing platforms, both of which customarily require users to voluntarily store personal data on their remote servers. Under many legal systems, the act of voluntarily giving private information to third parties is considered an explicit forfeiture of any expectation to privacy rights over that information. The result of this voluntary surrender of privacy is that government authorities have been permitted to bypass traditional protections against search and seizure without first demonstrating probable cause and obtaining judicial search warrants. Within the context of digital data assets, this doctrine has been interpreted such that any third-party Internet service that stores user data — including everything from Internet service providers, cellular data providers, social media websites, and cloud storage services — must comply with government requests to access to that data, thereby significantly weakening privacy protections across nearly every category of contemporary digital communication practices.
The ability to convert digital assets into properties offers a way out of this privacy dilemma by realigning rights to private property and rights to personal privacy—
—that is, essentially creating the digital equivalent of a fence that affords digital property the same bundle of private property and privacy rights historically attached to land. It is in this potential to protect digital property that we most clearly recognize that private property and privacy are two sides of the same coin.
A property system for digital properties must therefore offer both legal and technical affordances for protecting property rights and privacy rights. At the legal level, the property system must integrate into existing property rights frameworks to such an extent as to guarantee exclusionary access to the data in the same way that exclusionary access is afforded to physical properties. At the technical level, the property system must provide a minimum capacity for heightened security and privacy through strong encryption practices and other barriers to unauthorized access in the same way that security fences or monitoring systems provide an added measure of privacy for physical properties.
In the final and third part of the series we’ll introduce how Bitmark is cleaning up the digital environment by bringing real property rights to digital assets and data.
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