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Joe Bloggs

By Dave Birch posted Aug 2 2010 at 9:10 AM

[Dave Birch] Having just come from a meeting about the management of multiple identities and the potential commercial structure of a proposition based on pseudonyms, I found myself reading some excellent and thought-provoking comment on the issue of anonymity vs. pseudonymity vs. absonymity starting with a US perspective over at Public Citizen.

The First Amendment protects the right to speak anonymously, and if the bar to such discovery is set too low, much citizen and consumer discussion about the important issues of our day, including the doings of corporations and politicians, will be chilled and hence lost to the marketplace of ideas. If it is set too high, valid claims may be lost. We at Public Citizen have litigated many cases devoted to setting this balance correctly.

[From CL&P Blog: Two new cases on Internet Anonymity]

I can't say I understood everything (or, indeed, anything) in the legal argument, but I think I agree with the conclusion (applied by the US courts in the examples given) that "commercial" speech is not the same as "political" speech. Companies bashing each others' products via "astroturf" blogs are not (and should not) be subject to the same privileges as political opponents questioning policies. But, naturally, it is a very fuzzy boundary, and one of the key issues is anonymity. If you are allowed to post anonymously, then it's hard to

If you read through both stories you see that judges basically seem to be making it up as they go along as to what standards to use in deciding whether or not online anonymity is protectable

[From More Mixed Rulings On The Right To Be Anonymous Online | Techdirt]

Now, I would have thought that one of the reasons why we have judges is precisely so that they can make things up as they go along. If the law was written by people like me, it would be in XML and given the facts of the case as a set of propositions would be capable of delivering justice through an algorithm that would decide the outcome in polynomial time. But it isn't, so we need judges. Sometimes they come up with odd rulings -- look at the fuss about the UK judge who recently ruled that it's not against the law to smash stuff up if it belongs to people you really don't like -- but, generally speaking, they combine law and common sense.

Unfortunately, as I have constantly complained, common sense is a bad guide to what to do about identity.

We don't want paedophiles and nazis to be able to groom unsuspecting, innocent children online. Who could disagree with that? In the UK, this "common sense" drove a furore about Facebook that has led to an completely pointless resolution (along the lines of "something must be done, this is something, so let's do it").

how can the police help with every teen who is struggling with the wide range of bullying implied, from teasing to harassment? Even if every teen in the UK were to seriously add this and take it seriously, there’s no way that the UK police have a fraction of the resources to help teens manage challenging social dynamics. As a result, what false promises are getting made?

[From danah boyd | apophenia » Facebook’s Panic Button: Who’s panicking? And who’s listening?]

I would be utterly shocked if the presence of this button makes even the slightest difference. The kids who are smart enough to press it when they are approached are presumably smart enough to know that they are being approached, if you see what I mean, and the kids who press it because they are being bullied by their peers in some way are not going to get any help, so what's the point? The "Facebook murder" that Danah refers to might just as well have been called the "Ford Mondeo" murder, since both technologies were crucial to the crime, and as she points out having this button would not have averted the tragedy.

What's the alternative? Do we adopt the Chinese approach?

leading Chinese Internet regulator has vowed to reduce anonymity in China's portion of cyberspace, calling for new rules to require people to use their real names when buying a mobile phone or going online, according to a human rights group.

In an address to the national legislature in April, Wang Chen, director of the State Council Information Office, called for perfecting the extensive system of censorship the government uses to manage the fast-evolving Internet, according to a text of the speech obtained by New York-based Human Rights in China.

[From China seeks to reduce Internet users' anonymity - The Globe and Mail]

This sounds like the sort of thing that will go down well with the Labour MP Geraint Davies who is currently trying to get a law on the books to fine Visa and MasterCard if their cards are used to buy child pornography. He is particularly exercised by anonymous pre-paid cards that he says are routinely used by paedophiles (and, I'm sure, drug dealers, terrorists, tax evaders etc etc). And yet... I can't help feeling that we cannot have a healthy society unless it allows certain kinds of anonymity.

The Nazareth District Court has upheld the right of the Walla Web portal to refuse to hand over the IP addresses of commenters accused of defaming a journalist. "The good of online anonymity outweighs the bad, and it must be seen as a byproduct of freedom of speech and the right to privacy," Judge Avraham Avraham wrote in his ruling last week. The court also said the critical remarks concerning Yedioth Ahronoth reporter Israel Moskovitz, posted online in 2008, were unlikely to harm his reputation since they were poorly written and appeared only once, and readers were not likely to take them seriously.

[From Uphold talkbacker's anonymity in defamation trial, court says - Haaretz - Israel News ]

It sounds like this very sensible judge has found a decent balance so I don't see why we can't have the same kind of balance here. William Dutton makes a typically excellent observation on this.

Freedom of expression often requires anonymity, and many other activities and services have no need for identification of users. While not everyone agrees, creating what some of us called an ‘accountability versus anonymity’ debate, it is an important issue.[ii] Often there is only a need to authenticate that a person has a right to the service, such as being over a certain age. Therefore identity systems online must support this full range, and not require a level of identification greater than required by a particular service.

[From Online Identities: Selected Observations on the Big Picture at William H. Dutton]

It's not fair to pick on the odd confused UK MP about this. Government in general simply doesn't know what to do: there is no strategy -- the Government's "Manifesto for Network Nation" does not mention identity even once in its 59 pages -- and it therefore has no considered opinion on the topic. The same is true in the US.

The speech made it obvious that State Department officials do not have a coherent view on online anonymity. On the one hand, they want to crack down on intellectual property theft and terrorists; on the other hand, they want to protect Iranian and the Chinese dissidentss. Well, let me break the hard news: You can't have it both ways and the sooner you get on with "anonymity for everyone" rhetoric, the more you'll accomplish.

[From Is Hillary Clinton launching a cyber Cold War? | Net Effect]

In fact, US (and other governments') policy in this isn't just confused and pointless, it's actually dangerous. If you create a mechanism to spy on people, you cannot assume that it will only be the good guys who use it!

The news here isn't that Chinese hackers engage in these activities or that their attempts are technically sophisticated -- we knew that already -- it's that the U.S. government inadvertently aided the hackers... In order to comply with government search warrants on user data, Google created a backdoor access system into Gmail accounts. This feature is what the Chinese hackers exploited to gain access.

[From U.S. enables Chinese hacking of Google - CNN.com]

The government should be putting in place a system that provides certain kinds of anonymity in certain circumstances and -- as I constantly bleat -- make it central to their "Digital Britain" strategy that pseudonymity is the default.

But while no government-backed identification system could ever be expected to provide users with strong anonymity of the kind that will protect you from the government itself, more limited degrees of anonymity are still useful. While you'd want to stay far away from any products of NSTIC if you're anonymously posting videos of the police to your blog, if your aim is to anonymously blog about something like living with HIV, then NSTIC will probably work.

[From White House wants to help you "blog anonymously"]

I disagree with this. It is entirely possible to construct identities within the USTIC framework that have both conditional and unconditional anonymity. For example: Barclays Bank could give me an identity "joe.bloggs!barclays.co.uk" and I could then happily potter around the Internet, banking and shopping and commenting and participating and everything else. If I turn out to be a nazi pedophile grooming children to sell them glue online, then the police can take a warrant to Barclays who will then tell them who I am. What's the problem? Meanwhile, I have a persistent identity for online participation that cannot be traced back to me by dastardly marketeers, puppets of foreign powers or FBI agents who are pretending to be nazi pedophiles and trying to groom me.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


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