Should Anonymity Be Illegal?

  |  May 1, 2000   |  Comments

As the Internet is now designed, identity is generally optional. But it doesn't have to stay that way in future versions of the protocol, and the Internet protocol is in serious need of updating. Not enough 12-digit IP numbers to meet demand, for one thing. So, since we have to rebuild it anyway, how about keeping track of everyone? The pros and cons of web anonymity. Where do you stand?

I got so much reaction to our piece last week on Internet speech, I decided to run another important issue by y'all, one on which all other Internet enforcement efforts depend.

The issue is anonymity. As the Internet is now designed, identity is generally optional. But that doesn't have to remain the case in future versions of the protocol, and the Internet protocol is in serious need of updating. There just aren't enough 12-digit IP numbers to meet demand, for one thing.

So, since we have to rebuild the thing anyway, how about keeping track of everyone? The Clinton Administration thinks this is a dandy idea. The Justice Department is leading the charge, according to Wired News. The European Community is seriously considering overruling member states and imposing an end to anonymity there as well.

The idea that identification leads to safety is also popular in corporate America, especially among people who want to protect kids. That's the idea behind Steve Valerie's Kids Online America, or KOLA.

As ZDNet reported last week, Valerie's plan is to have subsidized access to the network offered as an employee benefit, and he's working with Bright Horizons, a big employee benefits company, to do just that.

In many ways, Valerie's is yet another effort to create a child-safe Internet. Such efforts include "censor-ware" programs like Net Nanny, server-based filtering efforts like Rated-G, and "gated communities" like Juniornet.

On KOLA every user has a profile, which includes age, so kids can visit only content appropriate to their age group. If your nine-year-old goes into a chat room you can be fairly sure they're just talking to other nine-year-olds. The system isn't perfect, but if an adult did masquerade as a child in a chat room, he or she could at least be traced, Valerie says.

Eliminating online anonymity would provide all sorts of benefits, in theory. Hackers could be traced, and everyone could be held responsible for their online actions. The price would be to eliminate privacy. One man's protection can be another's oppression.

Just as the FBI might take advantage of an end to anonymity to do things we like, Iran's mullahs and China's mandarins might take advantage of it to do things we don't like. They could use it to not just track their own people, but overseas critics as well. How long do you think Salman Rushdie would be on the Internet if he were easily traced from Teheran?

As with many questions involving computers, this is one of those black-white choices we know comes in shades of gray. Just as we could either have encryption or ban it, so there is no middle ground here, either. And don't let present events color your thinking on this. Before we give power to leaders we like, remember that power can also be used by leaders we hate and fear.

I'm not going to tell you where I stand. The answer to this one lies in your own heart. But when you hear that answer, be prepared to fight for it.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Dana Blankenhorn has been a business reporter for more than 20 years. He has written parts of five books and currently contributes to Advertising Age, Business Marketing, NetMarketing, the Chicago Tribune, Boardwatch, CLEC Magazine, and other publications. His own newsletter, A-Clue.Com, is published weekly.

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