Web Of Trust: RIP

It's official. I just received an e-mail from Thawte notifying me that, as of November 16, 2009, the most innovative and useful idea in PKI since its inception, the Web of Trust, will die.

Thawte was founded 14 years ago by Mark Shuttleworth. The primary purpose was to get around the then-current U.S. export restrictions on cryptography. Shuttleworth also had an idea that drew from PGP: rather than force everyone who wanted an e-mail certificate to get verified by some central entity – and pay for the privilege – why not have them verified by a distributed verification system, similar to the key signing system used by PGP, but more controlled. This was the Web of Trust. Anyone can get a free e-mail certificate, but to get your name in it instead of the default "Thawte FreeMail User" you had to get "notarized" by at least 2 people (or 1, if you managed to meet Shuttleworth himself or a few select others). The Web of Trust was a point-based system, and if you received 100 points (requiring at least three notary signatures) you became a notary yourself. The really cool idea was that it created a manageable system of trust based not so much on the six degrees of separation as on the fact that most of us are inherently trustworthy beings.

In 1999 Shuttleworth sold Thawte to Verisign for enough money for him to take a joyride into space, found the Ubuntu project, and to live without worries about money for the rest of his own life and that of several of his descendants. Verisign, of course, is in the business of printing money, only in the form of digital certificates, and certainly not in giving anything away for free. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that, but it iscertainly at odds with Thawte's free service, so it was really just a matter of time before the latter was disbanded. WIth it goes the Web of Trust.

Finally, on November 16, 2009, the Web of Trust will be removed as a free competitor to Verisign's paid service that does the same thing. It will be a sad day indeed.

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