GETTING-Plurality: Compressed to 0: The Silent Strings of Proof of Personhood

This 75-minute virtual workshop will feature author Puja Ohlhaver, a lawyer, innovator, and technologist in healthcare and web3

Online Event

Virtual, Registration Required
12:00 pm – 1:15 pm EDT

In an abstract image, streams of gold points appear to head on a horizontal plane toward a golden orb of light

The GETTING-Plurality Research Workshop is a series convened by the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation. In each session of the research workshop, we will discuss one paper focused on emerging technologies’ democratic potential or their governance. Our aim is to build a vibrant, cross-disciplinary scholarly community and support the development of cutting-edge work capable of confronting a new era of technological innovation, and its ethical and governance implications.

Logistics: This 75-minute workshop is entirely virtual and will be conducted over Zoom — please register to receive the link! Papers will be pre-circulated, and all attendees are expected to read them. A full-group discussion of the work will follow a brief presentation by the author(s) and commentator feedback. Sessions will be recorded.

Our next session will take place on Thursday, June 13 from 12:00pm-1:15pm. Details on the paper, presenter, and commentator are listed below.

“Compressed to 0: The Silent Strings of Proof of Personhood”

Abstract: Experiments in Proof of Personhood—where each person has a single, unique identity—have increasingly been touted as a mechanism for tracing information provenance, distributing Universal Basic Income, and facilitating democratic governance over systems of artificial intelligence. This paper chronicles Idena’s experiment in Proof of Personhood from launch in August 2019 to a crisis in May 2022, which prompted a pivot towards a novel experiment in sublinear identity staking. We show how despite verifying humans, hidden pools rapidly emerged—some cooperative, but most controlled by “puppeteers” who, at best, remunerated participants for periodically proving their uniqueness in exchange for access to their secret keys and controlling their accounts. Instead of fostering an egalitarian network of unique identities, the protocol fractured into hidden subnetworks vying for control over an economic pie with economies of scale trending towards oligopoly, undermining the protocol’s security and ambitions for democratic governance (one-person, one-vote) and UBI rewards (one-person, one reward). By giving humans economic incentives to periodically differentiate themselves from bots—even as low as $2 to $14 every few weeks—the protocol gave more informed, resourceful humans financial incentives to puppeteer less informed humans like bots. Notably, by May 2022, 23 entities constituting less than 0.6% of the network’s distinct entities controlled at least ~40% of accounts and the distribution of almost half (~48%) the network rewards. More striking, 3 entities controlled ~19% accounts and ~24% rewards. An off-chain system trending towards oligopoly subsumed an on-chain egalitarian system, quietly and opaquely. Achieving de jure sybil-resistance (filtering humans from bots) revealed a deeper challenge of de-facto sybil resistance (filtering humans acting like bots), which could not coherently or computationally be disentangled from the problem of collusion-resistance.

Presenting author: Puja Ohlhaver is a lawyer, innovator, and technologist in healthcare and web3. She was a member of the Harvard Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics Rapid Response Task Force on Covid-19 and is co-author with Glen Weyl and Vitalik Buterin of “Decentralized Society: Finding Web3’s Soul.” Her writing has been featured in the New York TimesWashington PostPolitico, and WIRED. She previously practiced law at Skadden, Arps and founded ClearPath Surgical, Inc., a women’s healthcare company. She holds a law degree from Stanford Law School.

Commentator: Judith Donath is a writer, designer and artist whose work focuses on the co-evolution of technology and society. She has published numerous articles about social media, AI, ethics and anonymity, and is the author of The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (MIT Press). As the former director of the MIT Media Lab’s Sociable Media Group, she and her students designed innovative interfaces for on-line communities; their art projects examining the future of identity, privacy and mediated life have been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide. Currently, she is a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and is writing a book about technology, trust and deception.

Questions? Please email our graduate student coordinator, Uma Ilavarasan, at