Since the launch of the “World ID” system on July 24th, all eyes have been on Worldcoin (WLD). Issues related to the launch were well-reported by this time. These include possible onboarding security risks and Worldcoin’s use of biometric data, which is currently being investigated by governments in several countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Argentina.
In the technology industry, where many of the most important innovations have occurred over the past few decades, there is often a tension between the drive to innovate and the need to consider the ethical implications. As technologies such as machine learning, facial recognition and big data analytics become more advanced, so does moral hazard.
In some cases, criticism from outside analysts, journalists, or ethicists can actually have positive outcomes by encouraging companies to consider the ethical implications and even change their business practices. In other cases, it may generate a backlash that impedes innovation or leads to increased regulation. Either way, ethical and social issues are an important aspect that innovators must grapple with, and these issues are often magnified when innovation touches sensitive areas such as privacy, autonomy, and social justice.
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Thus, while innovators often face criticism from many quarters—whether questioning the viability of their ideas, their potential to disrupt markets, or the ethical implications of their work—their relationship with outside observers is complex and multifaceted. Depending on the situation, criticism can be both a hindrance and a constructive force.
I won’t argue specifically about the merits of Worldcoin, but argue that if we criticize it to death rather than improve it, we run the risk of severely delaying technological progress.
Worldcoin hopes to solve the digital identity problem, and it does so by bypassing governments. Interoperable, accessible digital identity solutions mean you don’t have to worry about losing your identity documents or losing access to them due to a change of country.
Having worked with the United Nations on distributed digital identity solutions in the past, I know that well-designed systems can fight corruption, resist identity duplication, reduce fraud, and protect citizens from scrutiny. This is especially helpful for those receiving supranational support. A digital identity that never expires and can be accessed and read anywhere in the world is not only convenient. It saves lives.
It’s easy to make an argument for the system because, while a single government can handle identification quite well, no seamless identification system exists globally. Furthermore, no government coalition has made significant progress in using technology to address the problem. Worldcoin saw an opportunity to solve this problem privately — but now it is paying the price of being an early mover.
This brings back memories of another Web3 pioneer. Libra is an equally ambitious project to address market failures through private sector solutions. In this case, Libra is trying to provide a stable currency, which by most definitions is a public service. In doing so, it bypasses the central bank.
One of the reasons why we have a system that doesn’t work today is that Libra was disbanded after rigorous scrutiny. Some of its failures may have stemmed from a relationship with a high-profile founder who didn’t do a good job of protecting our data or our best interests — Mark Zuckerberg. In hindsight, we can safely say that the people involved in the project were not Zuckerberg. While Libra has hit a roadblock, they’ve been tried in different ways by other companies – from Circle (which has another stablecoin) to Lightspark (which facilitates lightning payments).
Progress isn’t necessarily lost, but has changed. We have not yet achieved where we should have been – a world of more stable and convenient payment methods for everyone. Beyond that, in the ensuing years, the virtues of the Libra project were subject to significant and damaging attacks. These attacks still affect stablecoins to this day.
So, in response to such vehement criticism, one might want Worldcoin to go the way of Libra. Its failure may not be solely due to founder missteps. It’s a legitimate reason to fail, and it’s the entrepreneurial journey. No, I’m concerned it might fail because it’s trying to build something we don’t have a paradigm for, which creates a breeding ground for the entire technology stack needed to “combat” digital identities (if we want to have secure digital identities in our lifetimes) .
Putting my pessimism aside for now: I’m sure digital identity will make progress even if Worldcoin fails. But fear and skepticism aren’t going away anytime soon, and this could seriously impact adoption in communities that need digital identities most.
Yes, there is a tendency for private sector technology to try to replace public services. Depending on how efficiently your government works for you, you will have different opinions on the merits of this option. But we should remember that the private sector is better at solving problems, especially when it comes to quickly and effectively applying new technologies.
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No, a private company shouldn’t have the final say on identity – but if it’s already invested in infrastructure and technology, shouldn’t we build on its efforts? It has achieved breakthrough innovations in the fields of ID management and storage processing. If it is willing to create a more complete “open innovation model”, we can use this work to improve multiple global systems. One that comes to mind is global voting. For example, even as we face global challenges like climate change, governance remains firmly local.
Changing core systems — like voting — requires a complete shift in the way we think about, use, and trust our systems. But that journey started for many of us when we discovered blockchain. In 2009, we wondered how our society would change in a post-centralized world. How can we trust a system that is not controlled by us, our government, or one corporation? Now, we face the same problem. How will our society change in a post-proof world? How do we function in a system where we can be sure evidence exists but we ourselves cannot see or know it?
This is the discussion we need to have about Worldcoin — less about the company, less about the founders, and more about the system it (or others) will build. Because Worldcoin is not the last ambitious project working on solving the decentralized system we run on – other projects will follow. We should be asking them the same question: how do you protect your privacy? How do you incentivize users without taking advantage of their economic status? What is your governance mechanism? How strong is it? Why should we choose you? How would your business model benefit if we chose you? What impact will you have on our world, positive or negative? What partners, advisors, supervisors and auditors should be in place to help mitigate this impact?
We should ask Worldcoin these questions as soon as possible, with an eye toward the future that Worldcoin or someone else will successfully implement the system.
In the end, it would be easy to attack Worldcoin, but we should all remember that some authorities, especially those with a vested interest in not providing digital identities to their citizens, will feel threatened by the borderless nature of this move. Not everyone who criticizes Worldcoin is out to improve it. I challenge us to think bigger. If this system and a post-proof world are to be built, let’s build it better now.
Paul Poquette is a professor and economist. He founded two blockchain organisations: UCL Blockchain Technology Center and Distributed Ledger Technology Science Foundation. He provides consulting services to several organizations, including Ripple, INATBA, and the International Organization for Standardization, among others. He has also consulted and worked with the United Nations, the European Parliament, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, the European Central Bank, the central banks of Italy, Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Canada, and Nexo. He previously served as chief economist for digital currencies and P2P financial systems at the Deutsche Bundesbank.
This article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed as legal or investment advice. The views, ideas and opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.