A decade of working toward Good ID

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 NamatiUnwanted WitnessParadigm 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 RoomCaribou DigitalDalberg, Strathmore’s CIPITITS 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 BankOpen 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 ForumMozilla, 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.

Thank you for bringing your expertise and ideas to this grand challenge and for partnering with us to have impact globally and in your communities. Bringing together this diverse group of stakeholders is one of our most notable attempts at catalyzing an Idea Machine — a self-sustaining, decentralized organism that has everything needed to turn big ideas into positive outcomes. This diverse and strong movement; its powerful expertise and agenda; our relationships with each of you; and your collective progress are sources of great pride.

Our Reflections

Last year, Omidyar Network took stock of the progress the Good ID movement has made and recognized the field has matured significantly in a short period. There are now professional associations, large-scale events, awards, and degrees recognizing digital identity expertise. Stakeholders have found greater alignment about what Good ID requires and power in collaboration.

At least 25 countries have adopted or are in the process of adopting at least some elements of Good ID in practice, policy, or design. Courts and legislatures have recognized the need for limitsprotections, and privacy. More philanthropies and social impact investors have added capital and other resources to this space. And the pandemic, which drove economic hardships and our universal digital existence, forced new digital identity innovations, inclusion, and many important conversations among a savvier public. Good ID is not yet available everywhere, for everyone, but the system has fundamentally changed since 2016. Today, whenever digital identity is discussed so too are accountability, transparency, inclusion, privacy, security, and the importance of the public’s voice and control.

With that understanding and an eye on the future, Omidyar Network decided to evolve its digital identity strategy (which, of late, largely focused on informing national ID systems and policies) and tackle broader, systemic issues. Our final grant, under the former strategy, will expire in 2025. Some of our partnerships and passions will continue forward under the evolved strategy, and others will be championed by different leaders. During this transition, it is important to us that Omidyar Network’s decision does not leave a large gap, that our partners continue to have the resources to lead, and that the Good ID conversation continues to evolve. We have spent the last 20 months (and will continue) to get feedback on our impact on the system as well as provide transitional funding, introductions to other funders and collaborators, sustainability planning, access to professional services, and capacity-building training.

In the forthcoming posts in this series, we’ll also share some of the lessons we have learned over the past six years and advice we’ve received from other leaders in this space. We will also share how we’re applying our partners’ feedback and an independent impact evaluation to shape our next-phase strategies.

Our Path Forward

Omidyar Network’s current programs are centered on addressing system problems and driving outcomes in three broad areas — Reimagining Capitalism; Fostering Responsible Technology; and Building Cultures of Belonging — primarily from the US and Europe, where we have an established presence. Since deciding to shift away from a digital identity-focused strategy, we’ve been looking around corners, exploring intersectional issues, and finding opportunities to forge new power, test emergent ideas, and pursue just causes — ones with similar opportunities for early impact that we saw in the digital identity space six years ago.

Here are the ways we will strive for impact under our theme of Responsible Technology going forward:

  • Incubating and empowering a network of inclusive, mutualistic communities that are committed to equity and responsible innovation
  • Rethinking society’s relationship with data to support privacy, fair outcomes, and power for all stakeholders
  • Creating a fair and competitive marketplace and building in checks and balances for powerful technology companies
  • Working toward a world in which tech platforms are trustworthyprivate, and safe for everyone
  • Championing enlightened regulation that protects young people’s digital safety and wellbeing
  • Understanding which tech and tech-adjacent issues animate Gen Z organizing and identifying the barriers and resource gaps in young people’s ability to create positive change
  • Supporting the scaling of responsible digital public infrastructure as well as the fight against disinformation
  • Working at the intersection of open-source software, open standards, and open protocols to preserve interoperability and internet security
  • Exploring the implications of Web3 on systems, individual lives, and the future

We know that many of our partners under the digital identity-focused strategy care deeply about these cross-cutting issue areas too. We would be honored to work with them in these new ways, especially as we broaden our focus beyond digital identity and ensure all forms of data and digital public infrastructure maximize the social benefit and minimize any harm via the Digital Public Goods AllianceCo-Develop, and other initiatives.

Again, we are truly grateful for the incredible opportunity to work with leaders in these spaces, learn so much, have an impact, make mistakes, and become a better funder in the process. We are in awe of our partners’ expertise, we recognize their sacrifices, and we are proud of our collective progress. Thank you to everyone who brought us into this journey and will guide us forward with incredible passion, patience, and potential.

Follow Omidyar Network to read parts two and three in the series, which are coming soon.