Anonymity Is a Problem and an American Tradition

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-12-21 Print this article Print

Technology allows for both freedom and abuse, and the law attempts to walk the line between them.

It didn't take long for anonymity on the Internet to become a contentious issue, and for good reason. Anonymity is problematic.

It is usually possible, even easy, for users on the Internet to hide their true identities to a degree. Most Internet protocols have weak or no authentication in them and it's usually not too hard to keep your real name from other services, like social networking sites or blog comments.

There are all manner of good and bad reasons for doing this. The good reasons, expounded well in the EFF's (Electronic Freedom Foundation) brief on anonymity include protecting the identity of those engaging in controversial political speech.

The founding fathers were serial anonymists. They wrote constantly for public consumption under pseudonyms, I suspect because personal attack in public debate was an even greater problem then than it is now. Taking one's name off an argument leaves just the argument.

Any student of American history knows of The Federalist Papers, essays written in 1788 and 1789 in support of the proposed US constitution, and especially for the ratification debate in New York. They were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay under the name Publius. Anti-Federalists wrote their own anonymous arguments under the names Cato and Brutus.

Unlike speech, anonymity on the Internet isn't free. Not everyone's Publius these days, so a lot of speech isn't just free, it's cheap. And while Hamilton must have paid for the publication of the Federalist Papers, When you write something anonymously on Blogger or MySpace you are doing so as a user on their system and you have agreed to follow their rules. As our Jim Rapoza has pointed out, violating these terms, even just by providing a fake e-mail address, can put you in legal jeopardy, as it did the defendant in the MySpace suicide case who was convicted for creating a fake profile.

Unlike Jim, I'm not comfortable saying that we have a right to violate Internet services' terms of service. I say that if you don't like the terms of service, don't use the service. Abusive people often hide behind anonymity to intrude on the privacy and rights of others, so services often need to insist in real identities. That's one thing, and it's another to say that violating those terms violates a Federal law.

As a policy matter it's reasonable to be concerned about anonymity. As Esther Dyson said in a recent interview " turns out anonymity really encourages bad behavior." She sees it as a right, but a corrosive force, at least in many cases. She's right. I would also point out that to me, anonymity is somewhat synonymous with weak authentication, and that weak authentication is comorbid with pretty much the full range of Internet security problems, from spam to botnets.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel