At the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, Microsoft’s chief research and technology officer made a rather startling proposal for dealing with the security issues plaguing the online world: a sorta driver’s license for the Internet.
What Mundie is proposing is to impose authentication. He draws an analogy to automobile use. If you want to drive a car, you have to have a license (not to mention an inspection, insurance, etc). If you do something bad with that car, like break a law, there is the chance that you will lose your license and be prevented from driving in the future. In other words, there is a legal and social process for imposing discipline. Mundie imagines three tiers of Internet ID: one for people, one for machines and one for programs (which often act as proxies for the other two).
Now, there are, of course, a number of obstacles to making such a scheme be reality. Even here in the mountains of Switzerland I can hear the worldwide scream go up: “But we’re entitled to anonymity on the Internet!” Really? Are you? Why do you think that?
What a great idea, I mean, if you’re the government of Iran or China, seeking to track dissidents and discourage public discourse. And I suppose it might be an intriguing proposition to a company like Microsoft, which would be in a great position to profit off the creation and administration of such a government mandated authentication system.
But I honestly can’t think of anything more antithetical to the American spirit.
Anonymity — or at least, pseudonymity — holds a long and cherished place in American history, dating back well before our nation’s founding. Benjamin Franklin honed his skills as a journalist writing under a number of pseudonyms, and Thomas Paine’s highly influential and historically revered Common Sense was originally published anonymously in 1776. And then of course there are the Federalist Papers, which were published under the pseudonym Publius, though authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay.
I mean, if anonymity is good enough for the founding fathers, it’s good enough for me.
Yeah sure, there are those who abuse the privilege, as evidenced by the sewer that is my comment thread, but Democracy is a messy thing, especially the nearly inviolable right to free speech that guarantees it.
Yet listening to Ross Reynolds and David Brewster — two journalists — discuss Mundie’s proposal on KUOW yesterday, I was struck by how… well… how damn credulous they sounded. A revocable license to post content on the Internet should be a facially ridiculous and offensive proposal to anybody who cares about the First Amendment, and yet Brewster refused to dismiss it as the absurdity it is, while Reynolds kept coming back to the point that maybe it should be required if you accept money online?
Really? Your right to free speech ends the minute you accept payment for it?
My guess is that Mundie and Reynolds/Brewster were focusing on two different issues. Despite the ungenerous headline, I’ll be generous enough to assume that Mundie is merely attempting to address the technical security issues that plague the Internet, to which end I would suggest that Microsoft focus on producing better software, rather than shifting the security burden to the enduser. Reynolds and Brewster on the other hand, seemed to start from the premise that anonymity poses some sort of threat to the world of words and ideas in which they make their living.
Again… really? Do anonymous writers really pose that big a threat? KUOW and Crosscut are free to require registration before allowing a commenter to post; hell, I keep threatening to move to some sort of registration system as a remedy for HA’s chronic troll infestation. But a government issued Internet license? That’s fascism.
What I think we really see here with the type of conversation we heard yesterday on KUOW, and in similar lamentations throughout our news and opinion industry, are the traditional media gatekeepers expressing their discomfort with the way the Internet hasn’t just enabled the rabble to crash through their gates, but has torn these gates from their hinges entirely.
And yes, the inevitable result of this new technology is that there is an awful lot of crap on the Internet. In fact, it’s mostly crap. But to suggest that the credibility of ones words should be so closely tied to the identity of the author, displays both a lack of trust in intelligence and judgment of the reader, and a remarkable disregard for the inherent value of the words themselves.
I don’t write anonymously, but if I did, what would be the difference? Let the unsigned editorialists at the daily newspapers hide behind the presumed credibility of their mastheads; as for me, I’m proud to simply let my writing speak for itself.