The world is watching

By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 27, 2010

Who is Little Brother? He's all those people you know, sort-of-know, or wish you didn't know: creepy, barely remembered high-school classmates; Machiavellian coworkers; your angry ex. But mostly you really don't know who Little Brother is, because Little Brother is anonymous. He or she is part of a sea of nameless faces: the anonymity-emboldened tough guy on a message board, or an auteur posting a sadistic video on YouTube, or an obsessive Twitter-stalker, or, sometimes, a malicious suburban mom hiding behind a hoax identity while taunting a teenager to suicide.

Inexorably, we seem to be drawn to a battle between two conflicting notions — and the winner of that battle may determine what kind of Internet we end up with. The voices advocating for increased privacy protections argue that our actions online should remain invisible — unless we give our express consent to be watched and tracked. But some of the most powerful voices on the Web are beginning to suggest that you should be held responsible for your online actions: that your anonymity on the Web is dangerous.

Speaking at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe this past month, Google's Schmidt opined that the rise of user-driven technology — and the dangers posed by those who would misuse it — required a new approach. "The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity," he said. "In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it."

And Schmidt is right — the same governments that are investigating Google's breaches of their citizens' privacy are also demanding that their citizens be accountable for their online identities in ways that must make the world's totalitarian regimes smile. That's the paradox: any measure that would allow Google to track the sources of a Chinese hacker attack would also enable to the Chinese government to track its own dissidents.

Even on our shores, a look at recent government action on privacy shows how confused the issue has become.

On the one hand, US lawmakers and the nation's top consumer-protection agency are so spooked by online marketing practices that they are threatening legislation if the industry doesn't begin to self-regulate. By doing so, they're affirming the public's right to retain its anonymity.

Earlier this year, the FTC began floating the idea of a no-track list, which would prevent advertisers from gathering information from a user's online behavior — much as the federal Do Not Call list restricts the practices of telemarketers. The ability of marketers to track you has shifted so quickly, and the information they can glean is so frighteningly accurate, that in July, Congress hauled a who's-who of the interwebs — including representatives from Google, Facebook, Apple, and AT&T — in front of the Senate Commerce Committee, threatening to push bills through both the House and the Senate if the industry didn't start explaining to consumers what information is being collected and how it's being used.

After the Senate hearings, Massachusetts senator John Kerry announced that he would draft legislation — to complement bills already introduced in the House — that would give people more control over how their information is collected and distributed online.

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