Friday, February 12, 2010

Pull Over Your Computer And Show Me Your License

At the Davos Conference in Switzerland, an interesting idea was put forward to "license" internet users. The purpose behind this is the usual reason for calls like this; combating crime in all its myriad guises, from identity theft down to slander and everything in between. The analogy drawn was to that of driving a car.
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.
What makes it really interesting is the person who submitted this idea. It was Craig Mundie, the Chief Research and Technology Officer at Microsoft.

While I agree that cybercrime is a problem and anonymity can be problematic, I'm not convinced that the automobile analogy is perfectly apt. While it's true that one needs a license to operate a motor vehicle, one is not needed to ride. Nor is one required to open the trunk, turn on the headlights, wear a seatbelt or change a tire.

Requiring everyone who logs onto the web to have a license would be overkill in the fight against cybercrime. The vast number of transaction across the internet are legitimate. This measure would punish the innocent along with the guilty. Furthermore, there are internet transactions which would be helped and even require anonymity. I'm thinking specifically of online debate.

When one talks about internet debate, what usually springs to mind is political arguments, but it encompasses myriad forms from sports to bottle-feeding-vs-breastfeeding to console gaming-vs-PC gaming and everything in between. People like to argue. While anonymity certainly encourages a less civil level of debate in some forums, it also serves to encourage honesty. That shouldn't be undersold.

Internet licenses can, I believe, have a place. That place is to ensure that internet transactions in which verifying the participants are who they say they are is vital -- online commerce, for example. Giving up anonymity in other areas, some where it's not important and some where it can be detrimental to take it away, would be like making me buy a license to ride in the car. I'm not putting anyone in danger without a license. I don't need to be able to read road signs or know what to do if the car skids. Likewise, on the internet I don't need to prove it's me when I post a comment at Amazon or look at someone's Facebook album. I'm not putting anyone's livelihood in danger.

Universal internet licensing comes with a tradeoff: the anonymity that has infused the web since its inception. Is it worth giving that up?

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