Anonymity, Identity, and the Internet

When it comes to the recent amendment, regarding a change to make anonymity and online annoyance a federal crime, I’m not sure why there is such a the big fuss.

My position, as articulated at the Corante Web Hub and in my comments throughout the blogosphere is that the change merely extends similar policy to the Internet. In other words, as I wrote on a comment on La Shawn’s business blog, the law was simply “updated to reflect technical advances.” Once again, it appears people completely separate the physical from the virtual world – this type of activity is illegal offline and with other less virtual telecommunications devices.

I realize that there are some issues with the amendment (or at least, perceived issues – I’m no legal scholar). Namely, what qualifies “annoying”. More importantly though, is how will the government actually enforce this law? Technically speaking, they just don’t have the resources or infrastructure to do so.

But that is not the issue so many have here. Instead, it relates to what people believe is a removal of freedom – but does the law prohibit freedom of expression? Obviously not. As I wrote on Steve Rubel’s blog, “This legislation does not outlaw anonymous comments. Rather, anonymous comments “with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person.” In terms of this debate, I’ll stop here.

This particular issue gives me the ability to talk about identity in the online world. In Dick Hardt’s very intriguing Identity 2.0 talk at the Web 2.0 Conference, he makes the case for identity being about reputation. My reputation as a blogger extends beyond this blog. As you can see above, I comment often in the blogosphere – **but how do people know that I am actually the one leaving the comments? **

Even in a system where comments require user registration, there is no way to verify a blogger’s identity. That means identity fraud could easily occur. Someone could begin to defame my reputation or yours, by leaving comments with your name around the blogosphere.

Over the past two months, I’ve actually setup a makeshift means to do two things: 1) Help me keep track of my comments. 2) Help others to verify my comments. What I’ve done is simply tag my blogosphere comments in BlinkList with a mycomments tag. Today, I’ve put my most recent comment links, along with their abbreviated excerpts into my blog’s sidebar as well. It is my way of protecting myself and my digital reputation. If there is ever a question about a comment with my name, people can turn to mycomments page (of course, it’s missing everything prior to December).

This solution somewhat works because BlinkList requires me to sign-in, in order to add “blinks” to my list. My BlinkList user name is “kyarmosh” and now, since you know I write on this blog – I’ve verified my account for you.

For the government to enforce this updated legislation on the Internet, similar elements would need to be in place – a national sign-in with a means for digital identity verification. We are no where near that – if there is any reason to be mad about this amendment, it’s the fact that we don’t have the technology or infrastructure to support such an ambitious law.

Don’t be surprised in the future though (and I don’t know when), if people will have online ID’s issued by the government or local agencies. Thinking about the virtual world more in terms of the physical world is inevitable.