Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Death of Web Anonymity:: The Fear Panopticon


image:: Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, Penn Olson

Eric Schmidt of Google stirred things up by addressing the issue of anti-social behaviour on the web. Schmidt is of a school of thought that if you are doing things you don't want anyone knowing about, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. I find this view to be problematic, as there's not a good argument put forth why conduct on the Internet is so potentially harmful, as opposed to in real-life, that anonymity should be banned. Surely, he couldn't be advocating for banning anonymity, right? At Techonomy, this is what he said:: 
"The only way to manage this [anti-social behaviour and data] is true transparency and no anonymity...In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it."
The problem with true transparency is that it may have a chilling effect on free speech and democracy. Watchdogs, whistleblowers, and critics of industry and government could be silenced without anonymity. The logic, if unchallenged, could lead to a slippery slope of limiting anonymity in the face-to-face realm. For example, it could be argued that cash allows for anonymous transactions that enable terrorist or criminal activity. 

One commenter on ReadWriteWeb astutely pointed out that limiting anonymity would be a boon to Google's business model. Linking online handles to names and more importantly demographic, geographic, and psychographic data would make Google the one-stop go-to source for all your Web 3.0 data mining needs.

The idea of total transparency is central to Bentham's panopticon more recently discussed in Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish. Concerns, i.e., fears, over anti-social behaviour in combination with the data explosion and our reliance on it, which Schmidt also discussed at Techonomy, conveniently go hand-in-glove with Google's business.

Human experience is complex and there may be good reasons to have a degree of anonymity or alter-ego. One example is Facebook. One project I'm working on is based upon the idea that users don't want a single identity on a social network site that includes bosses, grandma, friends, and old classmates. While privacy settings could compartmentalize networks, with technology there are no guarantees. Forcing transparency online also puts a great deal of faith in institutions to act responsibly with information. How will the government act upon information linked to individuals, particularly behaviours that aren't illegal but perhaps are critical of politicians or policies? What about employers? The problem with transparency is that power isn't distributed equally, let alone fairly. Those with the most cards will have more.

Limiting anonymity or alter egos online should be examined in terms of the effects and what precedence it sets. I guarantee one unintended result will be the creation of a black market for identities. Welcome to a variant of Gattaca {1997}::



Song:: XTC-"Real By Reel"

Twitterversion:: [blog] Google CEO Eric Schmidt on anti-social behaviour & anonymity.Is death of anonymity succumbing to a fear panopticon? @Prof_K


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