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This article appears in the issue May 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 5]


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The problem with anonymity is the word. Anonymity is so much the default in the real world--when I'm walking down the street, I have no right to demand to know who you are--that we don't even have a word for it. We use the word "anonymous" in the rare circumstances where we're expected to identify ourselves and we resist that expectation. And in many of those circumstances, we assert our right to anonymity because we're frightened or ashamed. So, "anonymity" has gotten associated with cowards hiding their faces and talking from the shadows, even though it is a right we carry around with us every day.

Too bad. It's in large part because the word sounds so bad that regulators around the world are getting away with ridiculous attempts to end anonymity on the Internet. Ludicrous though the attempts are, they could do real harm to the nature of the Internet, and especially to the oppressed who most rely on the Net's anonymity.

So, instead of talking about "the right to anonymity," I propose calling it the "open sidewalks" rule, or "no stop and frisk" or "the right to walk." OK, so they're not great, but they're better than "the right not to have to show an ID card to every stranger on the street."

The regulator's motives are good: They've noticed that terrorists and criminals use the Internet as a way to coordinate attacks, as well as to recruit and raise money. Imagine if we could track them down. That sounds like a worthy aim, even if it means sacrificing anonymity. (It doesn't sound quite so good if it means giving up all your privacy.)

Actually, I'm being generous. The motives of regulators are mixed. Yes, they'd like to stop terrorism, but some are motivated by a culture-killing copyright totalitarianism that would squeeze all the leeway out of our use of creative works, but that's a different--yet related--rant.

There are just two problems with the push to make the Net default to identification instead of anonymity: First, it can't be done. Second, attempts to do it will damage the Net as an instrument of democracy more than it will hurt the enemies of democracy.

It can't be done because it only takes a few weak links to open the Net up to anonymous bad guys. You'd have to get rid of all the proxy servers. You'd have to shut down all the open wifi access points. You'd have to shut down every Internet cafe and every library and university public Net on ramp. Even if you managed to demand strong ID before allowing people to use an Internet cafe, the system would only be as good as each nation's ID card system. Yeah, no one's ever used a fake ID successfully, right Jenna Bush?

Of course, ending anonymity wouldn't be enough because bad guys could encrypt their messages, so we'd have no way of knowing which messages need to be tracked. So, we'd have to get rid of encryption. No encrypted credit card purchases, so there goes e-commerce. Up goes identity theft.

And, once the regulators are done locking down the Internet, there goes the best hope of democracy. If we can track the online behavior of the people trying to blow up our cities, China can track the behavior of its dissidents. Kids who want information about things their parents aren't supposed to know they're interested in--AIDS, abortions, support groups of every sort--will be shunted once again in to the back alleys of information.

Not to mention the effect ending the presumption of privacy would have on the fabric of the Net, the human relationships that arise. Maybe you think it would be better if we always knew who exactly is talking. I think the Net's got it pretty damn right already.

Anonymity: We're stuck with it. Thank goodness.

(This column was prompted by my participating in the Internet working group of the Club de Madrid's Summit on Terrorism, Democracy and Security. You can read the working group's statement here: http://tinyurl.com/4g4ey).


David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" , e-mail self@evident.com.


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