I-Brokers: the ISPs of Identity

Phil Windley just posted a good assessment of what is becoming one of the key topics in the growth of interoperable Internet identity infrastructure — i-brokers and their business models. Phil makes the point:

There will be hundreds of identity providers and I’ll have accounts at dozens of them. Still, I don’t want to pick which identity provider I choose to use for a particular task according to what protocol they speak (that should be below the radar) but rather according to other “business” criteria. I may choose to use my Amazon account sometimes and my BYU account other times.

Phil is spot on. With all the focus on digital identity protocols and technologies, it’s easy to miss the obvious: in most cases an i-broker is going to have strong business motivations to shield his/her customers from needing to care about the technical details at all. Just as I have no idea how my bank clears a check, settles my credit card, or handles a wire transfer, most i-broker customers are only going to care that:

  • their single sign-on service works everywhere they want it to (hmm, sound familiar?)
  • their contact page functions flawlessly and doesn’t let any spam through.
  • their forwarding service maintains persistent links to anything and everything that matters to them.
  • their calendar/photo/file/other data sharing service operates without a hitch with all their devices and all their contacts.

It’s not rocket science: ISPs maintain our physical pipes, i-brokers will maintain our “social pipes”. Yes, there many more security/privacy issues at this higher layer, but the protocol people (SAML, Liberty, WS-*, XRI, OpenID, LID, SXIP, DIX, XDI) will provide the basic plumbing to get the job done. The role of the i-broker is to be the water company: make sure the social data flows smoothly and doesn’t leak.

Funny, but I remember being at BBSCON (remember that) in 1991 when the term “ISP” was just starting to be used. Within three years it was almost ubiquitous. At Digital Identity World the past two years, there hasn’t been a single session on “Becoming an I-Broker”. How much do you want to bet that this is one of the most popular sessions at Digital Identity World 2007?


About Drummond Reed

Internet entrepreneur in identity, personal data, and governance frameworks
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