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.