Pseudonymity and Privacy: Web 3.0 Part 2

Rochelle Terman
October 26, 2011
Image of a toy plastic disguise, featuring a false nose and glasses.
Note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part post. Read Part 1 here. 
 
Last week I discussed the new movement towards expert-led knowledge creation in the framework of web 3.0. My main illustration was Hypothes.is – a system that hopes to enable peer review for the web by reintroducing reputation regimes.
 
It has become increasingly clear, however, that new developments in crowd-sourcing cannot be decoupled from new developments in anonymity and identification on the web.  How can we give experts a role on the web without compromising web anonymity?
 
Hypothes.is plans to solve this problem by basing its reputation regime on pseudonymity, allowing for “credibility without public identity.” A lot of us already have experience with pseudonymity: anytime you make a username (e.g. ‘burritoluvr23’) you are presenting as a pseudonymous user.
 
But as more and more of our lives are uploaded into the cloud, can we really have pseudonymity while concealing a ‘public’ identity?
 
An example: I commented on a political blog last week and I wanted to comment pseudonymously in order to protect my own safety and reputation (as you can probably tell, what I wrote could be perceived as controversial). But as soon as I clicked ‘submit’, a gravatar was created for me without my knowledge or approval, under the automated username ‘rterman’. Anyone with Google access could have deciphered my public identity (i.e. my name) within seconds. Not only that, but the gravatar aggregated all the comments I posted on this particular blog, as well as all other sites I interacted with using my email address. (I’m not the first one to recognize privacy concerns with gravatars.)
 
The line between public and ‘psuedonymous’ web identity becomes even blurrier with the rise of another essential element of web 3.0 -- the ‘semantic web’. Rather than having search engines gear towards your keywords, the search engine will gear towards the user. Keywords will be searched based on your culture, region, and lexicon. Advertisements, news, and even dating matches are tailor made for you based on your pseudonymous online identity. Have you ever been on the market for a used car, and suddenly started seeing a bunch of used car advertisements on facebook or your favorite blog? That’s the semantic web.  The semantic web was what allowed the gravatar to build the ‘psuedonymous’ username ‘rterman’ – because I had used this username on another site that had API integration with the blog I was commenting on.
 
So there appears to be a conflict between web 3.0’s commitments to pseudonymity, expert-led knowledge and the semantic web. But if pseudonymity isn’t feasible, the question then becomes: does it matter?
 
The vast majority of web users would respond: yes. The creeping dissolution of digital anonymity is now a major concern of academics and freedom-of-speech advocates who argue that anonymity is essential for protecting privacy, encouraging truth in the face of power, and facilitating innovation.
 
But the fact is, our commitment to anonymity is not universal, stable, or even consistent. A few days after my online blogging incident, I was giving a talk on the French ban on face veils at a local high school. One of the many issues that came up during our discussion was the question of anonymity, and whether obscuring one’s identity (visual or otherwise) is acceptable or appropriate in a democratic society. According to many members of the audience, the trouble was that anonymity could lead to recklessness. Indeed, most of us believe that good behavior is at least partially encouraged by the fact that we will be remembered tomorrow for out actions today. Some of us even carry elaborate fantasies about what we would say to our colleagues, friends, teachers if our reputation wasn’t at stake. (It was ironic, given Halloween is coming up – a day in which many relish in disguise.)
 
It was interesting then, that while most of the audience exalted transparency in public spaces, no one mentioned the Internet, the norm of anonymity in that space, and the severe anxieties that are aroused anytime someone mentions the dissolution of anonymity on the web.
 
It seems to me that anonymity holds a particular value on the web, that few of us are willing to give up. But it is still worth asking whether our commitment to digital anonymity makes sense given our other values, such as accuracy, safety, and transparency. After all, does anonymity really make for a productive online discussion or does it enable trolling?
 
Why was it so important that Hypothes.is – in many ways the epitome of web 3.0 aspirations – reinforce the value of a public identity concealment – a central tenant of web 2.0?
 
At the end of the day, if we want the Internet to reflect accurate information, and let experts back in, we might need to rethink our commitment to pure anonymity on the web. And you can quote me on that.