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A Conversation with Judith Fleenor, the ToIP Foundation’s New Executive Director

By February 14, 2023Blog

The ToIP Foundation is pleased to announce the appointment of Judith Fleenor as full-time Executive Director. Judith is taking over the role that John Jordan, Executive Director of Digital Trust Services for the Province of British Columbia, has served in a part-time volunteer capacity since the Foundation’s inception in May 2020. John has been elected to serve as Chair of the Steering Committee.

Judith first joined the ToIP Foundation as Director of Strategic Engagements in May of 2021, a role in which she helped grow the organization to over 400 organizational and 100 individual members and coordinate the Foundation’s engagement at events including the Internet Identity Workshop, the European Identity Conference, Identiverse, and the ToIP 2022 Summit.

Judith recently sat down with John to have a conversation about her new position.

Congratulations, Judith. What was your reaction when the Steering Committee invited you to become Executive Director?

Frankly, I was surprised and honored when the Executive Committee came to me with the proposal. Titles have never been that important to me. I’ve always been about how I can use the skills I have and what I enjoy doing to help move an effort forward. One of my favorite sayings comes from Lao Tzu:

“Go to the people.
Live with them. Learn from them. Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build with what they have.

But with the best leaders,
when the work is done,
the task accomplished,
the people will say
‘We have done this ourselves.”

It was an honor to be asked with a group of wonderful individuals who are all volunteering their time and talents to make a real difference in the future of the Internet. What could be more fulfilling than that?

What motivated you to initially join ToIP as Director of Strategic Engagements?

I have always had an interest in Identity and Access Management (IAM), dating back to my time as Director of Training Delivery Worldwide at Netscape. We were promoting the use of LDAP, and the courses we were giving on IAM made me quickly realize that digital identity goes way beyond the need for authentication and access. It is a very complex topic with multiple interweaving issues.

The reality is that the way we have been designing digital identity systems has not matched the way identity works in the real world, where we naturally share different identity attributes in different contexts. For example, in some contexts a person needs the freedom to be anonymous or pseudonymous, while in other contexts the need for individual and community security requires a greater ability to correlate.

As a result, the field of digital identity and trust is always interesting and challenging—even more so when you want solutions to be decentralized and vendor-neutral. It requires deep thinkers who look at problems from multiple perspectives. The ToIP Foundation is a place where these thinkers can collaborate to take on these tough challenges. As the song from the musical Hamilton put it, “I want to be in the room where it happens.”

What resonates with you about the mission of the Foundation?

The mission of the Trust Over IP Foundation (ToIP) is to simplify and standardize how trust is established over digital networks and using digital tools. Our goal is to achieve this by bringing together (and developing when necessary) robust, common standards into a complete architecture for internet-scale digital trust.

While it is easy to state that mission, it is anything but easy to execute on it. It takes a high-functioning collaborative community to get it right. Very few of the protocols within the ToIP stack will be developed within the ToIP Foundation. Some are being developed at the Decentralized Identity Foundation (DIF), some at W3C, some at other standards development organizations. Some will be nurtured by multinational organizations, others by open source projects, others by entrepreneurs as yet unknown.

I think the part of the ToIP stack that most resonates with me is the central piece, the concept of a trust spanning protocol that can be used by other higher-level protocols for many different trust tasks, yet works across ecosystems built for different purposes. This is just like how the Internet Protocol works everywhere, yet supports many other higher-level protocols built for many different purposes.

This means we need the equivalent of an IP address, but for digital trust relationships—which is what the trust spanning protocol will provide. Note that I use the term “digital trust”, not “digital identity”, because when we say “digital identity” we most often think of humans, whereas the ToIP stack needs to work not only for people and organizations—in all their complexity—but for objects and data as well.

What are your top three priorities for 2023 in your new role?

Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration!

Seriously—the challenges we are trying to solve at the ToIP Foundation all require collaboration at three levels:

  1. Collaboration between different working groups and task forces within ToIP itself. I want to work with our members and Linux Foundation experts to create better processes to facilitate that collaboration.
  2. Collaboration across the various communities and foundations in the digital identity, credentialing, and business transactions space. I’d like to help reduce marketplace confusion about who is working on what, iron out differences, and focus on crossover work efforts.
  3. Collaboration with government(s) to help educate and influence the adoption of decentralized digital trust infrastructure. For example, when governments begin issuing verifiable digital credentials that citizens can use to prove their identity – as digital versions of the same documents every government does for its citizens today in physical form, it has the potential to streamline and strengthen processes, while providing cost saving and added security. It’s no coincidence, John, that you are leading just such an effort in British Columbia right now. John, you are forging a path for your Canadian citizens that has the citizens’ best interest in mind. I want ToIP to be a resource for governments everywhere to understand that not all verifiable credentials methodologies are the same and that the choice they are making now, have long range implications. As governments roll out their solutions, it will be a massive boost to adoption. We need to help governments understand the implication of the decisions they are making to allow them to make the best decisions now.

How can potential collaborators get in touch with you to follow up?

One of the benefits of being Executive Director of an international non-profit organization is that it is very easy to reach out to me. You can fill out the contact form at our website, I get copied on all of those. I’ll try to reply to your message as soon as I can. If you are already a member of ToiP, just send me a direct message via our Slack workspace.