01 March 2006

Higgins: Social Web, Social Commerce

Identity is a slippery thing at the best of times. On the Internet it's even worse (as the New Yorker cartoon famously encapsulated). But identity still matters, and sorting it out is going to be crucial if the Internet is to continue moving into the heart of our lives.

Of course, defining local solutions is easy: that's why you have to remember 33 different passwords for 33 different user accounts (you do change the password for each account, don't you?) at Amazon.com and the rest. The hard part is creating a unitary system.

The obvious way to do this is for somebody to step forward - hello Microsoft Passport - and to offer to handle everything. There are problems with this approach - including the tasty target that the central identity stores represent for ne'er-do-wells (one reason why the UK Government's proposed ID card scheme is utterly idiotic), and the concentration of power it creates (and Microsoft really needs more power, right?).

Ideally, then, you would want a completely modular, decentralised approach, based on open source software. Why open source? Well, if it's closed source, you never really know what it's doing with your identity - in the same way that you never really know what closed software in general is doing with your system (spyware, anyone?).

Enter Higgins, which not only meets those requirements, but is even an Eclipse project to boot. As the goals page explains:

The Higgins Trust Framework intends to address four challenges: the lack of common interfaces to identity/networking systems, the need for interoperability, the need to manage multiple contexts, and the need to respond to regulatory, public or customer pressure to implement solutions based on trusted infrastructure that offers security and privacy.

Perhaps the most interesting of these is the "multiple contexts" one:

The existence of common identity/networking framework also makes possible new kinds of applications. Applications that manage identities, relationships, reputation and trust across multiple contexts. Of particular interest are applications that work on behalf of a user to manage their own profiles, relationships, and reputation across their various personal and professional groups, teams, and other organizational affiliations while preserving their privacy. These applications could provide users with the ability to: discover new groups through shared affinities; find new team members based on reputation and background; sort, filter and visualize their social networks. Applications could be used by organizations to build and manage their networks of networks.

The idea here seems to be a kind of super-identity - a swirling bundle of different cuts of your identity that can operate according to the context. Although this might lead to fragmentation, it would also enable a richer kind of identity to emerge.

As well as cool ideas, Higgins also has going for it the backing of some big names: according to this press release, those involved include IBM, Novell, the startup Parity Communications (Dyson Alert: Esther's in on this one, too) and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

The latter is also involved in SocialPhysics.org, whose aim is

to help create a new commons, the "social web". The social web is a layer built on top of the Internet to provide a trusted way to link people, organizations, and concepts. It will provide people more control over their digital identities, the ability to more easily find other people and groups, and more control over how they are seen by others across diverse contexts.

There is also a blog, called Social Commerce, defined as "e-commerce + social networking + user-centric identity". There are lots of links here, as well as on the SocialPhysics site. Clearly there's much going on in this area, and I'm sure I'll be returning to it in the future.

No comments: