Online Identity/Anonymity

This story over on Slashdot about how the Washington Post’s online executive editor Jim Brady is arguing against anonymity sparked quite a lively little debate.

The problem isn’t really anonymity – it’s identity.

They don’t want to know who a particular person is, they just want to somehow stop that one person from coming back. They don’t care who you are, they just want to make sure that “you” don’t come back.

This is not a new problem.

Basically, what you need is a trusted, secure, centralized system that you identify yourself to. This centralized system then anonymizes your identity to allow you to participate in anonymous discussions. If you mis-behave (or if the owner of the discussion group just doesn’t like you), you can be banned – and the system takes care of the actual “banning.” The owner of the discussion group just says “ban anonymous user #xxx” and the system connects it back to “you.”

It’s sort of like encryption – where only the central server has the decryption key.

As an interesting aside, Arthur C. Clarke made an interesting use of this concept in his novel “The Songs of Distant Earth“, in the form of “ship’s council.” If you can, pick up that book and read it to see an example of this problem “solved” (in a manner of speaking).

Unfortunately, because of the centralized requirement of this form of anonymity, it will never really be possible on the Internet. After all, there is no “central” anonymizing server. And you can’t just make your own for various reasons – your government might seize it, you yourself might not be trustworthy, etc.

I sort of hope that one day we can solve this problem – because it is a problem. Just look up “sock puppets” sometime and see what I mean. But for now, I think we all just have to learn to deal with it – because it’s better to have broken anonymity than no anonymity at all.

By Keith Survell

Geek, professional programmer, amateur photographer, crazy rabbit guy, only slightly obsessed with cute things.