Two tastes better together: Combining OpenID and OAuth with OpenID Connect

Update: Einar Solbakken has translated this post to Danish.

OpenID Connect

On Friday, David Recordon, one of the original authors of OpenID, released a single-page specification for OpenID Connect, a concept that I outlined on this blog in January before I joined Google.

I’m particularly excited about this early proposal because it builds on all the great progress that the community has made recently on a litany of technologies, including OAuth 2.0 and the link-based resource descriptor format (LRDD) and its emerging JSON-based variant (JRD).

But I’m most excited about OpenID Connect because it forces the OpenID community to evaluate the progress we’ve made over the last three years (OpenID 2.0 was introduced in 2007) and to think critically about where we go next, and how we get there, given what the market has indicated it wants.

Rearticulating the problem

When Brad Fitzpatrick first created OpenID, he was looking to solve a fairly mundane problem: develop a protocol that made it possible for a commenter to claim her comments on someone else’s blog. For the commenter, she had a way to vouch for her words; for the blog owner, he had a way to establish the authenticity of the comments left by his readers. Given this context, all that was required in the early days of OpenID was a stable way to uniquely identify people — gathering additional profile information wasn’t as necessary because blog commenting forms already asked for — and often required — that commenters supply their name and email address.

Thus the basic architecture of OpenID concerned itself with establishing identity across contexts (i.e. “Bob” from Context A is the same “Bob” found in Context B), rather than with profile portability. This focus lent itself to privacy-preserving anonymous and pseudonymous transactions where identity could be established without the need to divulge personally-identifying information, or without forcing you to collapse the boundaries of separate social contexts.

This feature of OpenID (called directed identity) enabled you to hold a single account at, say, yahoo.com, but sign in to third party sites using “non-correlatable identifiers”. That is, this feature made it possible to maintain discreet profiles for logging in to other sites across the web without needing a different password to manage each.

The ability to “select [the] OpenID identifier” that I want to share with stackoverflow.com is how this feature manifests on yahoo.com:

Yahoo - Select your OpenID identifier

The economics of user-centric identity

Features like directed identity, however, present several challenges for users and OpenID relying parties.

For users, these features complicate the sign in flow by introducing new interface surfaces (as seen above) and management tasks. They also increase the cognitive burden of registration by requiring a user to pick a profile (or create a new one) to use in a given context. Additionally, the ability to refrain from disclosing profile information when registering for a new service may seem economically advantageous to the user at the outset (“Aha! I refuse to tell you my name or email address!”) but results in unintended disadvantages over time.

That is, because OpenID users share less information with third parties, they are perceived as being “less valuable” than email-based registrants or users that connect to their Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Why? Simply put: OpenID, by design, favors the user rather than the relying party. In contrast, technologies like Facebook and Twitter Connect emphasize the benefits to relying parties. So while it might seem like an inconvenience to custom-tailor your personal privacy settings on Facebook, the liberal defaults are meant to make Facebook users’ accounts more valuable to relying parties than other, more privacy-preserving account configurations.

So, as Twitter and Facebook have grown in popularity and the number of sites willing to outsource their account management to them have increased, both OpenID users and providers find themselves in a predicament: if they continue to restrict the flow of data, the number of OpenID relying parties will diminish in favor of Facebook- and Twitter-Connected sites. If instead OpenID users become more liberal with the data that they are willing (and able) to share with third parties, they will still need to rally support from relying parties to be recognized as valuable users. Thus making more data available from OpenID users is the first essential step that we must take to regain our footing in the marketplace.

But it won’t be enough.

To overcome both the real and perceived economic disadvantage of supporting OpenID, we need to make adopting OpenID exceedingly simple, straight-forward, and economically advantageous — in real terms.

Why harmonizing “Connect” is important

I wrote my overview for OpenID Connect convinced that the “connect” verb (inherited from the Twitter and Facebook platforms) would help users distinguish between merely registering for a site and signing up for and sharing some data about themselves. Even though Facebook abandoned the “connect” brand at F8 this year, I’m still of the mind that the “connect” verb suits our purposes, even if it’s going to take several years to catch on in common usage.

In any case, if OpenID solves the problem of providing a stable and unique way to identify someone, then the “Connect” in OpenID Connect layers in the ability to access data on someone’s behalf (via conventional APIs like Portable Contacts or ActivityStreams).

It’s this assemblage of authentication and authorization technologies that the industry is calling out for — as evidenced by the success of Facebook and Twitter Connect and more recently, Messenger Connect from Microsoft and upstart efforts like Diaspora that cite OpenID among the technologies they intend to leverage. Without a common standard, each of these efforts is inventing its own custom-tailored solution, retarding industry-wide progress and delaying the development of next generation social applications.

Thus, by leveraging OAuth as the core of OpenID Connect, we can build on the consensus and momentum that has been achieved in the marketplace, and by weaving in a standard and much-simpler discovery mechanism, we can preserve the decentralized design of OpenID. Presuming that Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others all become OpenID Connect providers, that means that site operators can implement one connect API and interoperate with potentially dozens of providers with a single, well-understood open source stack of technologies.

Such an outcome would be good for relying parties (or “clients” in the parlance of Recordon’s proposal) as well as citizens of the web, who deserve a choice when it comes to entrusting a provider with their digital identity but are increasingly marginalized by “privacy-preserving technologies” that are not economically viable.

“Connect” also provides a convenient answer to the question of what kind of interface to present to the users who want to use their OpenID:

OpenID Connect

(Note that I also used the “connect” verb very intentionally in my social agent mockups for designing identity into the browser.)

If every site that supports third party authentication today added a “connect” button in place of their conventional “sign up” or “register” buttons and deployed a consistent user experience around picking a provider (some combination of NASCAR buttons and a type-anything email/URL field) that executed the OpenID Connect protocol, we’d be well along the path of decentralizing the social web, and restoring balance to the ecosystem.

What does OpenID stand for?

Of course, applying the OpenID brand to this solution isn’t something that I would do trivially, since the OpenID Foundation is the real authority for the trademark. However, at the foundation’s board meeting earlier this year at the OpenID Summit West, we unanimously decided to expand the scope of the OpenID Foundation’s mission to include advancing the technological underpinnings of internet identity in general, without regard for the existing OpenID technology.

This is a critical recasting of the role that OpenID and the OpenID Foundation plays in the ecosystem. Though there are other groups with similar mandates, the OpenID Foundation has decided to take on the internet identity opportunity as a general problem, rather than one narrowly scoped to disposable use cases.

In that light, it seems to me that we have come to a crossroads in the history of the foundation — however knowingly — and decided to take aggressive actions to advance the cause.

Without speaking for the foundation as a whole, I believe that it is essential that we are able to reconceive OpenID as the brand for decentralized digital identity. OpenID need not be thought of as merely an identity algorithm, but as a means for representing and conducting oneself online and across digital environments. Thus as the identity landscape undulates, the OpenID Foundation is in the position to articulate solutions that are not protocol-bound, but responsive to needs of the time, and able to adapt to and weather the shifting winds of technological progress.

After OpenID 2.0, OpenID Connect is the next significant reconceptualization of the technology that aims to meet the needs of a changing environment — one that is defined by the flow of data rather than by its suppression. It is in this context that I believe OpenID Connect can help usher forth the next evolution in digital identity technologies, building on the simplicity of OAuth 2.0 and the decentralized architecture of OpenID.

Two interviews on the open web from SXSW

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Funny how timing works out, but two interviews that I gave in March at SXSW have just been released.

The first — an interview with Abby Johnson for WebProNews — was recorded after my ActivityStreams talk and is embedded above. If you have trouble with the embedded video, you can download it directly. I discuss ActivityStreams, the open web and the role of the Open Web Foundation in providing a legal framework for developing interoperable web technologies. I also explain the historical background of FactoryCity.

In the second interview, with Eric Schwartzman, I discuss ActivityStreams for enterprise, and how information abundance will affect the relative value of data that is hoarded versus data that circulates. Of the interview Eric says: In the 5 years I’ve been producing this podcast, this discussion with Chris, recorded at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2010 directly following his presentation on activity streams, is one of the most compelling interviews I’ve ever recorded. I expect to include many of his ideas in my upcoming book “Social Marketing to the Business Customer” to be published by Wiley early next year.

If you’re interested in these subjects, I’ll be speaking at Northern Voice in Vancouver this weekend, at PARC Forum in Palo Alto on May 13, at Google I/O on May 19, and at GlueCon in Denver, May 27. I also maintain a list of previous interviews that I’ve given.

What I like about Facebook’s “openness”

likeLet’s get something straight: in my last post, I didn’t say that Facebook was evil.

Careful readers would understand that I said that funneling all user authentication (and thus the storage of all identities) through a single provider would be evil. I don’t care who that provider might be — but centralizing so much control — the fate of our collective digital existences! — in the hands of a single entity just can not be permitted.

That said, I do want to say some nice things about the open things that Facebook launched at F8, because as an advocate of the open web, there are some important lessons to be had that we’d do well to learn from.

  • Simplicity: I have to admit that Facebook impressed me with how simple they’ve made it to integrate with their platform, and how clear the value proposition is. From launching OAuth 2.0 (rather aggressively, since the standards process hasn’t even completed yet!) to removing the 24-hour caching policy, Facebook made considerable changes to their developer platform to ease adoption, integration, and promote implementation. This sets the bar for how easy (ideally) technologies like OpenID and ActivityStreams need to become.
  • Avoiding NIH (mostly): In particular, Facebook dispensed with their own proprietary authorization protocol and went with the emerging industry standard (OAuth 2.0). I hope that this move reduces complexity and friction for developers implementing secure protocols, increasing the number of available high quality OAuth libraries, and leads to fewer new developers needing to figure out signatures and crypto when sometimes even the experts get these things wrong. By standardizing on OAuth, we’re within range of dispensing with passwords once and for all (…okay, not quite).
  • Giving credit: I also think that Facebook deserves credit for giving credit to projects like Dublin Core, link-rel canonical, Microformats, and RDFa in their design of the Open Graph Protocol. I’ve seen many other efforts that start from scratch when plenty of other initiatives already exist simply because they’re unawares or don’t do their homework (one of which is the OpenLike effort!). I’m not sure I agree with the parts that Facebook extracted from these efforts, but as David Recordon said, we can fight over “where the quotes and angle-brackets should go“, but at the end of the day, they still shipped something that net-net increases the amount of machine-readable data on the web. And if they’re sincere in their efforts, this is just the beginning of what may emerge as a much wider definition of how more parties can both contribute to — and benefit from — the protocol.
  • Open licensing: Now that I’ve been involved in this area for a longer period of time, I’ve learned a simple truth: it’s hard to give things away, especially if you want other people to use them, even moreso when some of those potential users are competitors. But, that’s why the Open Web Foundation was created, and why David and I are board members. After setting up foundations over and over again, we decided that it needed to be easier to do! Now all the hard work of the Open Web Foundation’s legal committee is starting to pay off, and I am quite satisfied that Facebook has validated this effort. We’re still so early in the process that it’s not entirely clear how to make use of the Open Web Foundation’s agreement, but surely this will motivate us to find our own Creative Commons-like approach to proclaiming support for open web licensing on individual projects.

So, while I still have my reservations about Facebook’s master plan, they did do a number of things right — not everything — but I’m tough customer to please. When it comes to the identity stuff, I’m definitely non-plussed, but that’s where my ideology and their business needs collide — and I get it.

What this means is that we all need to show more hustle out on the field and get serious. With Facebook’s Hail Mary at F8, we just got set back a touchdown, and a field goal just ain’t gunna cut it.