“Anonymity as the Default”

David Weinberger has a long and insightful post in which he declares that anonymity should be the default in the construction of new digital identity solutions. And, because several of the leading ID systems now in development function as interoperable platforms, he fears that this principle will not prevail:

My fear is that we are in the process of building a new platform for identity in order to address some specific problems. We will create a system that, like packaged software, has defaults built in. The most important defaults in this case will not be the ones explicitly built into the system by the software designers. The most important defaults will be set by the contingencies of an economic marketplace that does not particularly value anonymity, privacy, dissent, social role playing, the exploration of what one is ashamed of, and the pure delight of wearing masks in public. Economics will drive the social norms away from the social values emerging. That is my fear.

David also links to comment all over the techie blogoshphere on this and related threads, including thoughts from several identity gurus, including Ben Laurie, Kim Cameron, and Eric Norlin (both here and here). Follow the trackbacks and there are even more posts.

As I have discovered repeatedly when navigating the digital ID/anonymity space, this discourse quickly gets bogged down in a thicket of definitional quibbling and cross-talk about first principles. The posts linked above exhibit some of these pathologies. Nevertheless, taken together they are a thought-provoking thread.

I was especially taken with a distinction drawn by Tom Maddox (accompanied by still more links!) between anonymity and pseudonymity. I think Dave Kearns makes the same point but calls the result “privacy.” By whatever name, this is similar to arguments I have made at Berkman and elsewhere. I think the most effective preservation of control over your “digital person” is probably to split that person into a few different digital identities, each reserved for different functions. The tricks will be to see how the defaults work:

  1. Will the various digital identity platforms coming down the pike make splitting the self easy for the average internet user who wants that sort of unlinkability but whose time constraints and technical prowess make it hard?
  2. Will nontechnical factors permit such pseudonymity — that is, will Bigstore.com accept a pseudonymous customer when they have the ability to demand a verified and detailed digital identity?

That circles right back to David’s original point about anonymity as the default position and the way that building a digital identity platform may undermine that principle. As usual, it seems like Dr. Weinberger has it about right.

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