Universal Reputation Rating Systems: The Good, The Bad, The Tyrannical

By John Light | P2P Connects US

In my last blog post, I gave an optimistic view of the current state of Universal Reputation Rating (UR2) technology and offered a look into the future of how it may be used by individuals to control relationships both on and off the internet.

I now offer another perspective: a skeptical view of a future where identities and reputations are placed under a virtual microscope for all to analyze and critique, along with ways in which communities can prevent the worst abuses of such a system from ever coming to fruition (or at least minimize the negative effects).

When you meet someone new who you would like to establish a relationship with, you often have to take their word that they really are who they say they are. Usually, this is a harmless extension of trust, and peers quickly verify that the claimant is legitimate.

On occasion, however, schemes are carried out to exploit trust and defraud unwitting victims. In the wild-west realm of the worldwide web, this is no different – even exacerbated, perhaps. Nigerian 419 scams, phishing exploits, and man-in-the-middle attacks threaten to erode internet users’ patience and confidence in the possibilities of the internet, which could lead many to abandon any effort to establish a marketable identity online and instead opt for using the web purely for entertainment.

With so many potential security threats on the web, how will governments and tech companies convince the rest of society that their identity information is safe in the cloud? And how do we know that this kind of system won’t simply be used to lock “undesirables” – such as political dissidents, street vendors, illicit-drug users, sex workers, and other System D outcasts – out of the “whitelist” economy, as is done now with State-sanctioned criminal records?

One way to prevent a 1984-meets-Brave New World scenario is to keep this technology open, decentralized,  and, most importantly, voluntary, while providing users with the option to remain secure and anonymous or pseudonymous in their communications. Anonymity and pseudonymity are particularly important to preserve today in the face of an apparent “war on Anonymous” which is occurring at the hands of governments and mainstream media outlets worldwide. People must be free to remain unknown, so that they may feel free to express themselves and conduct business peacefully without being linked to a real world identity.

Open software and hardware secures trust by enabling independent third party security audits, thereby preventing some of the worst abuses (such as back-doors and man-in-the-middle attacks) from occurring. Voluntary, decentralized reputation systems ensure that if a particular reputation rating service falls out of favor with its users, due to either technical, aesthetic, or trust reasons, the users may switch to a competing service which more adequately meets their expectations.

The reputation rating services themselves may have a reputation rating with other decentralized reputation rating organizations, and consumers can easily transfer their profiles between services based on popular opinion of their current reputation provider. Given the competitive nature of the business environment, bad actors are quickly weeded out of the marketplace and will have to work hard to regain users’ trust.

Information security, privacy, and civil liberties issues are not the only sources of criticism when contemplating the possibility of UR2 Systems. Reputation and community systems veteran F. Randall Farmer is opposed to the idea for purely practical reasons.  With reputation ratings, he believes that “Context is King.” For example, a good reputation on eBay does not mean that your advice on Stackexchange is sound, and your killer Klout score might not make you a good Airbnb guest.

I would humbly assert, however, that “one karma to rule them all” does have its merits: provided that users trust the criteria used by the UR2 platform, and believe that all information provided by the various linked profiles is accurate and honest, it is valuable to know that an individual is respected and trusted in multiple communities.

If a seller on Craigslist displays a Trustcloud badge indicating positive reputation scores on eBay and snapgoods, as well as a healthy social network on Twitter and LinkedIn, buyers can reasonably expect the transaction to go smoothly. The value here is in predicting future behavior: a record of success and smooth transactions in the past is likely to indicate future success as well, and the longer and more thorough the record, the more likely the chances are for a positive experience.

There are, of course, various ways by which malicious users can circumvent even the best of reputation systems. The use of shill accounts to artificially boost ratings in order to seem more trustworthy is an old trick, and the danger of being ripped off is greatly increased when buyers and sellers in a marketplace conduct business outside of escrow.

That said, consistent and responsible usage of anti-fraud measures such as reputation ratings, reviews, and bonded escrow are really all that is needed to foster a healthy peer-to-peer (p2p) market environment. An example of this is the infamous Silk Road marketplace, where sellers remain pseudonymous and buyers only choose to give up their pseudonymity when giving the seller their mailing address (which can be encrypted for further security).

The success of this marketplace is dependent entirely on people’s trust in the rating/review and bonded escrow systems, which protect both buyers and sellers. If this model works for even the most high-risk of marketplaces, it can certainly mitigate risk in p2p marketplaces where real-world identities are easy – or even essential – to establish.

Now that society has the tools for p2p regulation and fraud prevention in UR2 Systems and bonded escrow services, p2p production centers coming online via 3D printers and cooperative work spaces (although currently limited in scale), as well as a frictionless method of worldwide p2p value transfer in Bitcoin, what’s preventing the p2p collaborative economy from completely overtaking the existing house-of-cards economy which threatens to completely collapse at any moment? The answer is more surprising than you think: nothing. Anyone with basic internet access and an entrepreneurial spirit has the ability to link-in to the many social marketplaces available and become a goods or services provider, often with very little initial investment.

For those who lack the resources, there will likely be community centers which offer voluntary assistance as the p2p economy grows and can support such charity work, and already there are libraries and meetup groups which offer similar free access to help. The future of this new economic paradigm is limited only by our imaginations. To paraphrase a famous presidential speech, “ask not what the p2p economy can do for you – ask what you can do for the p2p economy.”

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John Light is an eager participant of the Peer-to-Peer economy. Specializing in Bitcoin, personal cryptography tools, and social media marketing. Interested in using technology to help solve the world’s most urgent problems. Catch him on the bleeding edge.