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[FYI] Should Anonymity Be Illegal?


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Monday, May 1, 2000  


Should Anonymity Be Illegal?  

by Dana Blankenhorn  


The issue is anonymity. As the Internet is now designed, identity is 
generally optional. But that doesn't have to remain the case in 
future versions of the protocol, and the Internet protocol is in 
serious need of updating. There just aren't enough 12-digit IP 
numbers to meet demand, for one thing.  

So, since we have to rebuild the thing anyway, how about keeping 
track of everyone? The Clinton Administration thinks this is a dandy 
idea. The Justice Department is leading the charge, according to 
Wired News. The European Community is seriously considering 
overruling member states and imposing an end to anonymity there as 

The idea that identification leads to safety is also popular in 
corporate America, especially among people who want to protect kids. 
That's the idea behind Steve Valerie's Kids Online America, or KOLA.  

As ZDNet reported last week, Valerie's plan is to have subsidized 
access to the network offered as an employee benefit, and he's 
working with Bright Horizons, a big employee benefits company, to do 
just that.  

In many ways, Valerie's is yet another effort to create a child-safe 
Internet. Such efforts include "censor-ware" programs like Net Nanny, 
server-based filtering efforts like Rated-G, and "gated communities" 
like Juniornet.  

On KOLA every user has a profile, which includes age, so kids can 
visit only content appropriate to their age group. If your nine-year-
old goes into a chat room you can be fairly sure they're just talking 
to other nine-year-olds. The system isn't perfect, but if an adult 
did masquerade as a child in a chat room, he or she could at least be 
traced, Valerie says.  

Eliminating online anonymity would provide all sorts of benefits, in 
theory. Hackers could be traced, and everyone could be held 
responsible for their online actions. The price would be to eliminate 
privacy. One man's protection can be another's oppression.  

Just as the FBI might take advantage of an end to anonymity to do 
things we like, Iran's mullahs and China's mandarins might take 
advantage of it to do things we don't like. They could use it to not 
just track their own people, but overseas critics as well. How long 
do you think Salman Rushdie would be on the Internet if he were 
easily traced from Teheran?  

As with many questions involving computers, this is one of those 
black-white choices we know comes in shades of gray. Just as we could 
either have encryption or ban it, so there is no middle ground here, 
either. And don't let present events color your thinking on this. 
Before we give power to leaders we like, remember that power can also 
be used by leaders we hate and fear.  

I'm not going to tell you where I stand. The answer to this one lies 
in your own heart. But when you hear that answer, be prepared to 
fight for it.  


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