How do internet giants enter the blockchain world? They speak its language — and change their models.

Consider Microsoft, which manages one billion identities across services ranging from Active Directory and Skype to LinkedIn. But when Ankur Patel, lead principal program manager for Microsoft’s identity division, spoke during the Consensus 2018 conference in New York, he didn’t tout those services. Instead, he talked about how the growing array of personal data available on the internet “doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to all these apps and services. The result is an endless breach of my personal identity.”

On Tuesday, Patel demonstrated Microsoft’s proof-of-concept of a decentralized identity solution that could ultimately allow every user to “own their identity” while working with “the existing world” of services, including Microsoft’s own.

“There’s a huge amount of old legacy technology and infrastructure holding markets back from being freer and enabling people to participate,” says Square’s Dorsey.

Along with ensuring privacy, decentralized identity services could provide businesses an independent source of information about employees’ credentials, including education and training.

“Individuals want privacy protection. Companies want independent proof for audit” of skills, Patel said.

Microsoft also is committing to open standards. “If we’re going to claim that we’re designing a standard for you, we can’t do it behind closed doors,” Patel said.

Acknowledging that today’s privacy concerns don’t reflect the challenges of the “more than one billion people for whom these problems are first-world luxuries,” Microsoft has announced an identity program for displaced people, including refugees, as part of a goal to “empower everyone, not just the two billion people on the internet” today, he added.

This idea appears to be an emerging ethos — and a business opportunity — for even the largest developers. When IBM discussed its own blockchain initiatives in the context of “social good,” it focused on the underserved.

“Forty percent of the world’s population is unbanked,” said Bridget van Kralingen, an IBM senior vice president. “The fastest way to get them out of poverty is to help them start a business.” To that end, IBM created an end-to-end microfinance operation in Kenya, where 220 microloans have been issued and administered using the technology.

For peer-to-peer payment provider Square, the emphasis also has shifted to embrace the “unbanked” worldwide. Co-founder Jack Dorsey said this wasn’t the initial goal, “but something we want to lean into.”

“We want to push more access [by] building more simple tools to pull more people into the economy,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of old legacy technology and infrastructure holding markets back from being freer and enabling people to participate.”

In similar fashion, when ConsenSys announced Kaledio, its enterprise software-as-a-service product, the big news was that it is immediately available on the Amazon Web Service (AWS) platform. But company officials used as an illustration of its potential its work with Union Bank in the Philippines, which plans to use the technology to serve the 35 million unbanked Filipinos, many of whom live on less than $2 a day.

Also, Nokia executives used the example of farmers selling their data instead of having data aggregated by others for profit to describe their participation in an online content marketplace launched by Streamr on Wednesday.

Other developers are focusing on frameworks to help ensure their own projects and crypto assets will be operable with others around the world.

When Circle announced its new dollar-backed stablecoin on Tuesday, it released an interoperable global framework called Centre to allow others to create stablecoins of their own, particularly in Asia where demand is high.

“It’s really critical that infrastructure like this is globalized from day one,” says CEO Jeremy Allaire.

Mark Toner
Mark Toner is a Washington, D.C., writer and editor. He has covered business, technology, media, education, and healthcare for a wide range of trade and industry publications.