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Privacy rights: Accountability now!

It's the in subject among the chattering class, but David Holtzman says Internet privacy will remain a pipe dream until anonymity with accountability gets permanently introduced.

    America's sensitivity about Internet privacy has reached an all-time high. Some high-profile companies like Microsoft have been added to the list of those being criticized for privacy breaches. And if you thought that was troubling, it may horrify you to learn that the FBI admitted using a program called "Carnivore" that sifts through suspect's e-mails.

    Privacy rights activists believe that installing more technology, coupled with government regulation, are positive steps towards protecting user's privacy on the Internet. While this might be one solution, it also restricts the amount of information available to end-users, as many will choose to 'opt-out' of offers and privileges that come from online usage.

    But the underlying problem isn't about the need to install additional technology--it's about the need to install the right kind of technology. A technology that promotes accountability.

    Anonymity is what makes the Internet such a special medium. For the first time, one can reach a tremendous audience without having to put his/her personal reputation on the line. The Internet has given a whole new voice to the people, but the rise in government regulation is threatening to undermine the true power of the Internet.

    There are many reasons why individuals want to participate in online discussions about issues that concern them. At the same time, they may not want their online identity to bleed into other aspects of their private lives. The negative consequences of this can manifest itself in a variety of ways, ranging from the infamous AOL 'outing-of-the-gay-sailor' incident to lawyers, doctors and other professionals being afraid to discuss anything on the Internet for fear of legal or social retribution.

    The true power of the Internet as a social medium cannot be fully realized unless individuals have the right to limit the consequences of what they say. Online attribution should not call for real-world retribution.

    Message boards and chat rooms provide a venue where ideas about businesses and their leaders can be freely exchanged. As people are beginning to discover, these electronic encounters are very permanent, and often multiply. Unlike conversations recorded on paper, audio or videotape, the chance of destroying all copies is practically impossible. On the Internet, we are far more "on the record" than anywhere in real life other than in a courtroom.

    Furthermore, many subjects discussed on the Internet tend to penetrate deeper than in offline conversations. Burson-Marsteller proved in a study that influential people affect four times as many people on the Internet as they do in the real world. Therefore, an astounding amount of opinions are formed on the Internet each day, when you consider that 30 million people participate in online discussion groups.

    Because online communication has such an impact on Internet user's lifestyle and purchasing decisions, there needs to be a checks-and-balances system that rates Internet users' "online reliability"--identifying those high ratings, while properly exposing unreliable sources.

    In this new system, the penalty for any "bad" behavior under an online identity would not reach beyond that online reputation--that is to say, in anything short of criminal activity.

    To be sure, this means that people can abandon their identities and create new ones. However, if such a person rejoins the Internet, they would be forced to start over with a zero reputation score. As we come to rely on digital reputations to help decide where to direct our attention, falling back to zero would become very painful, like trying to get a job without a resume.

    Imagine e-mail that defaults to blocking all messages from addresses with a reputation score of zero. That's accountability. Online, you'd be nobody until you demonstrated your influence among others, if not some measure of respect and expertise.

    Consider the success of the Google search engine, which seemed to come out of nowhere and quickly become the search engine of choice for power surfers. Google incorporates a measure of influence--a key component of reputation--by counting how may Web sites link into each one it indexes. The more links pointing to a site, the more influential it is assumed to be, so the higher it is ranked in the search results.

    The fact that Google has became so popular, so quickly, is strong evidence that the Internet is a self-organizing system, with fundamentally different behavior than other media. And because the Internet is its own entity, individuals' online reputations should remain online, and should never be linked to their real identities.

    These days, it's a smart political move to jump on the bandwagon and point out all the violations of privacy that have occurred on the Internet over the last few years. While all the ensuing social pressures will likely be directed towards the government and Web companies to implement additional privacy technology, it is not until such time as anonymity with accountability is permanently introduced, that privacy on the Internet can truly prevail.