The Future of the Internet, Where Everybody Knows Your Name: Report

Bill Gates

Is anonymity online coming to an end? The pervasive attitude says yes.

The Pew Research Center teamed up with Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center to survey 895 experts on the future of the Internet—and at the forefront of the discussion is the sticky topic of anonymity. Experts were nearly split down the middle, with 55% agreeing that Internet users will be able to communicate anonymously and 41% agreeing that, by 2020, "anonymous online activity is sharply curtailed." Not only are there divergent opinions on whether online anonymity will be possible in the future, there isn't even a consensus on whether anonymity is universally desirable.

"The routine and pervasive corporate and governmental surveillance, tracking and 'proviling' (profiling) systems that are already much too widespread are certain to continue and expand," says Jim Warren, a tech entrepreneur and activist quoted in the Pew report. "Those who are in positions of power—both corporate and governmental—ALWAYS want to know ever-more about everyone." Anthony Townsend, director of the Institute for the Future, agrees. "Given the amount of communications monitoring governments already do, we're likely already past this point," he says.

Others say that's too simplistic a view of anonymity. Axel Bruns, associate professor at the Queensland University of Technology, finds value in an in-between realm of pseudonymity, identifying as a human but not a specific person. "Other than for law enforcement hardliners, the challenge is not to tie every online activity to a specific identified user, but simply to verify that the activity is carried out by (or at least on behalf of) an actual human being rather than by a spambot or other malicious and disruptive entity—and for this, verified pseudonymity is sufficient," he says. Craig Newmark, founder of Craig's List, also sees shades of gray: "We'll see a wide range of online identity options, from anonymity, to different levels of reasonably verified identity. Whistleblowers, for example, need anonymity. Public discussion boards need some modest level of verified identity, whereas home banking needs strong authentication."

Even further, a lack of anonymity can also be more positively spun as "authentication." After all, there are benefits to identifying one's self. Stephen Downes, of the Canadian National Research Center, explains: "Where authentication is voluntary, and clearly in the client's interests, and non-pervasive, people will gladly accept the constraints. Just as they accept the constraint of using keys to lock the car and house door but have the prerogative to, if they wish, leave either unlocked."

It's impossible to generalize from a group of viewpoints so often in complete disagreement, but the theme of the online world coming to mirror the physical world certainly emerges from the rubble. And with extremists on both sides harping away about the impact of total anonymity online, we sometimes forget that in no other part of our lives can we be completely anonymous. It only makes sense that it will be impossible to maintain total anonymity online—as Tom Wolzien puts it, "Even the Wild West was tamed." Heywood Sloane, of the Bank Insurance and Securities Association, sums up the attitude that often flows beneath the more speculative, theoretical, and moral statements made by others:

Choice about whether or not to divulge personal information will not be substantially different from the physical world. One does not have to divulge one's name to look in a store, but of course the store will want to know how they are to get paid. Nor does a newspaper (or Web site) have to publish content from unknown/unverifiable sources. And yes, there will be graffiti online as well as on walls.

[Via Pew Internet]

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