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Trust thy Internet neighbor

As more people use the Net for blogs and socializing, proving who you are--or at least establishing credibility--will be key.

SAN FRANCISCO--Do you trust the blogger next to you?

In the ever-expanding world of personal publishing on the Web--whether it be blogging, audio/video casting or social networking--helping to establish trust between virtual strangers will be one of the next big technology issues to tackle, according to several industry executives here at technology confab Supernova.

"Going forward, trust (will be) the thing that makes the Internet possible. Reputation management will be more and more important," Caterina Fake, vice president of marketing at photo community site Flickr, said Tuesday during a panel discussion on mobile applications.

Fake, whose company was acquired by Yahoo in March, was referring to technology that can verify the identity of a person online, or at least establish a person's credibility in a virtual setting or community.

"Where human interaction transitions into the real world, you're going to need some methods for verifying the person is who they say they are."
--Robert Goldberg, venture capitalist, Idealab

Most publishing tools today--including blogs or shopping engines like people post comments, pose as an authority or rant while maintaining their anonymity to readers. As the noise level increases, more people will want a way to separate the wheat from the chaff by turning to friends or other trusted sources for information, industry executives believe.

The need for "trust" networks may become more acute as people spend more time online and increasingly use the Internet for commerce, communications and socializing.

Online dating is a prime application in need of some type of identity checks, executives say. Would-be paramours can join a dating site and misrepresent their single status, post false pictures or come with a criminal record--and potential mates might not be the wiser until an in-person meeting, or much later.

"Where human interaction transitions into the real world, you're going to need some methods for verifying the person is who they say they are," said Robert Goldberg, a venture capitalist with Idealab, an incubator of technology start-ups based in Pasadena, Calif.

Some systems are already emerging to solve this problem.

Mena Trott, co-founder of blog publishing tool Six Apart, agreed during Tuesday's panel that seeding trust online is essential. She pointed to Six Apart's TypeKey, and an upcoming evolution of the tool, as an opt-in system to verify a person's identity. That verification can be used as a kind of digital driver's license while a person traverses the Web.

"We're just discovering how trust networks work," Trott said.

Verified Person and Trufina are two companies tapping into public records to verify people's identity and give a digital stamp of approval on individuals for social networks and employers.

According to the Web site of Verified Person, whose chairman is former Apple Computer CEO John Sculley, the company "has developed a massive clearinghouse containing identification and verification information including, but not limited to, criminal, sex offender, professional licensure and employment-related data."

It is unclear how Verified Person and others will make money from their services, but presumably it will be through licensing.

Still, technologists have been trying for years to develop systems for authenticating the identity of e-mail senders in order to cut down on fraudulent spam. But those systems have yet to be fully worked out among industry leaders.

Net media giants could be inching closer to offering trusted networks. Google has filed a for the mark TrustRank, a method for eradicating fraudulent Web pages from search results.

Yahoo introduced a social networking site, Yahoo 360, earlier this year that integrates privacy controls. It lets people easily connect to friends and block outsiders from personal information.

"Trust is contextual, not global," Amy Jo Kim, a designer of social networks from said during the panel. Kim was referring to the convenience of letting work friends see a part of your blog, while closer friends could see another part. "You can create infrastructure or scaffolding to build up trust online."