I was catching up on the back issues of Wired scattered around my house and there in the September issue (the one with Beck on the cover) I found an article by Charles C. Mann that started out thoughtful but ended up maddening.
The story dissected the threat posed by splogs (and link farms and comment spam and the like) to the vitality of the interactive internet (what some people persist in calling “Web 2.0” –although the New York Times now confusingly says that the “semantic web” is “Web 3.0”!). These are familiar nusiances to blog writers and readers, but the Wired treatment was one of the best general-readership summaries of the problem I had seen. As the article explains:
[S]ploggers and other Web spammers make most of their money by getting viewers to click on ads that run adjacent to their nonsensical text. Web page owners – the spammer, in this case – get paid by the advertiser every time someone clicks on an ad. … Because the ad money is effectively available only to Web sites that appear in the first page or two of search results, spammers devote enormous efforts to gaming Google, Yahoo, and their ilk. Search engines rank Web sites in large part by counting the number of other sites that link to them, assigning higher placement in results to sites popular enough to be referred to by many others. To mimic this popularity, spammers create bogus networks of interconnected sites called link farms.
The story (worth reading despite the serious objection I am about to discuss) reviews various economic and technological approaches for dealing with the problem, particularly captchas and various automated filtering approaches such as Akismet. Author Mann quotes observers like David Sifry of Technorati and WordPress (and Akismet) developer Matt Mullenweg, who (1) acknowledge that there will be a bit of a technological “arms race” against the sploggers but (2) consider that effort to be the price we pay for an open, distributed, interactive, user-centered network — for, in other words, a “generative internet” (an important concept from Jonathan Zittrain that I have discussed here, here, and here).
Then, four paragraphs from the end of the not-short article, after all the discussion of these technological fixes, Mann suddenly becomes dispirited and closes with an apparent endorsement of the alternative path laid out by Six Apart executive Anil Dash. According to Dash, “the spammers are too good” and we cannot “muddle through” with such technological fixes. Instead:
Ultimately, [Dash] thinks, “the solution is going to be accountability…” [T]here will have to be some kind of global identifier – an Internet Social Security number, so to speak. Everyone could select a personal URL, he says, such as their blog address. Dash concedes that such global identifiers would alarm privacy activists. But the other solutions are even worse…
“Alarmed” is not quite the word for my reaction when this heretofore sensible discussion about technological fixes concluded abruptly, blithely, and without any exploration, by saying more or less: Oh well, no more online anonymous speech I guess. The End.
There are serious and genuine threats posed by the openness of distributed network architecture. I am not denying those threats. But there also seem to be some pretty good solutions out there, getting better all the time. They are not perfect, but they appear sufficient to allow for much of the functionality we seek. Advocates of mandatory authenticated identity think they have a better solution, but I just don’t see it.
The evident benefits of online anonymity (including pseudonynity) range from matters of life and death (e.g. political dissidents speaking out in repressive regimes) to individual self-expression and communication (e.g. open and frank discussions about sensitive topics such as politics, religion, sex, or health) to convenience and data privacy (e.g. using psudonyms to avoid data mining — or at least direct the resultant marketing to a web mail account maintained for the purpose). These are not to be dismissed lightly.
Maybe — maybe — I might be less “alarmed” if I believed this sort of accountability would really work. But it can represent an improvement over the current arms race only if it is implemented by technology that cannot be gamed by all these devious sploggers and spammers. Leave any scope for remaining anonymous and the bad guys will exploit it. Then we’ll have the same arms race played out with different weapons, while at the same time making anonymity even harder to obtain for average internet users. You have to be skeptical, at the design level, that we can build perfect identity technology any more easily than we can build perfect filtering technology or perfect captchas.
Even more than my disagreement with the substance of the conclusion, though, I was infuriated by its glibness. This was a perfect example of an all-too-typical attitude among certain types of techies. They see anonymity as, at most, a nice extra, but not fundamental to what makes the internet wonderful. At least I could respect a sober analysis of costs and benefits that acknowledges the importance of anonymity. Too often one encounters this sort of gearheaded tunnel vision instead.