Omidyar Network’s past, present, and future role in the digital identity space
By Thea Anderson, Ellen Jacobs, Robert Karanja, Govind Shivkumar, and Abiah Weaver of Omidyar Network
At Omidyar Network, we know that every society, every organization, and every person is experiencing the effects of rapid digital transformation. Leaders around the world aspire to transition all aspects of life into the digital domain, often with the promise of streamlining and improving how we access and provide services, verify our identification, make and receive payments, learn, work, communicate, travel, and more.
And while inclusion, convenience, and resilience were at the heart of many of these strategies well before the pandemic, we believe what is built in this era, especially when deployed at scale, must guarantee more: More value for all stakeholders; more power and protection for all people; more privacy and security; more limits on high-risk applications; more transparency and accountability to the people technology impacts; and more anticipation of and adaptation to the many different futures ahead of us.
Digital transformation can’t just be a force for good; it must be good at its core.
These beliefs led us to invest about $45 million to advance Good ID from 2016 through 2025. Good ID is shorthand for transparent, accountable, trustworthy, inclusive, private, secure, user-controlled digital identification. It provides a north star for how we are identified in the digital age that combines ethical practice and thoughtful technology and policy design in support of inclusive and equitable societies. In certain contexts, Good ID will mean “no ID” and protections against surveillance. In others, responsible digital ID programs will mean all members of society can experience greater prosperity, civic participation, equitable health and education outcomes, and the dignity that comes with formal recognition and belonging.
Our Role in the System
Omidyar Network is a social change venture that helps reimagines critical systems and the ideas that govern them. Early in our exploration of the global digital identity system and its impacts, we recognized that informing this foundational technology and related norms would be deeply complex work.
The field had been quietly building since the early 2000s but was still very nascent. Financial institutions and a few governments were leading most of the early innovations in this space, often to fight corruption. A few early adopters had also built large-scale, ID systems to administer government and humanitarian services, and they were traveling the world championing the benefits. Recognizing the demand, startups began raising funds for their B2B (and eventually consumer) technologies to address both fraud and privacy pain points. In 2015, the United Nations agreed to include legal identification and birth registrations as a target under Sustainable Development Goal 16. This prompted several ministries to prioritize digital identity in their five-year strategic plans, and multilateral institutions and corporations developed specialties to help fulfill those goals. That said, in 2016, when we made our first investments and wrote the first iteration of our strategy, national policymakers and courts were still largely unaware of the technology and its role in society, the economy, and democracy. Media, researchers, and human rights advocates were just starting to ask questions and explore the impacts of digital identity. And until more recently, very few of these stakeholders were exchanging knowledge nor did they have a shared vision and boundaries for identity in the digital age.
In the last five+ years, Omidyar Network prioritized engaging a diverse range of system influencers, supporting 90+ initiatives, and facilitating conversions across dozens of sectors and communities and in 40 countries. In every decision we made, our goals were to support and empower the people impacted by digital identity decisions; facilitate connections, learning, and shared understanding; and increase the field’s capacity to define, build, and govern Good ID.
- We supported civil society organizations — like Namati, Unwanted Witness, Paradigm Initiative, and Lawyers Hub — in their leadership of national advocacy campaigns and legal battles, and we equipped journalists, particularly in Africa, to cover these local/global issues with more depth and nuance.
- We enabled universities and researchers — like Engine Room, Caribou Digital, Dalberg, Strathmore’s CIPIT, ITS Rio, and IDEO.org — to explore the impacts of digital identity-related policies and programs; to identify any risks, harms, and redlines; and to make evidence-backed recommendations for more ethical and equitable approaches.
- We took the opportunity to work with mission-aligned startups — like Cambridge Blockchain (acquired by Blockchains) and Digi.me — and communities of practice that were disrupting the field by giving ordinary people more control over their identity information and how it could be used by banks, schools, and healthcare providers.
- We formed partnerships with multilateral institutions, business associations, and investors — like Smart Africa, UN, World Bank, Open Society Foundations, and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation — to embed Good ID standards in their financial and technical assistance for countries and corporations pursuing foundational identity systems.
- We fueled global platforms and networks — like Good-ID.org (Unfold & Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center), World Economic Forum, Mozilla, and Women in Identity — where stakeholders could convene and present different perspectives, debate them, and define and practice Good ID together.
- We catalyzed the creation of a modular, open-source identity platform (MOSIP), a global public good that is embedded with privacy, security, and other benefits and addresses corporate dominance in this space.
- We learned a lot from an exceptional roster of advisors that spanned the globe. Our focus on systems change led to deep explorations of the intersections between digital ID and dozens of other issues. From data governance and trade to blockchain and supply chain to citizenship and human rights.
- And we sought out and engaged people we didn’t always agree with in order to learn, understand diverse perspectives, find a common ground, and a path forward that is rooted in respect.