by Andrew Oram
American Reporter Correspondent
January 31, 2010
WHEN THE INTERNET KILLS
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Editor's Note: After the Introduction, this is the fifth of seven parts of an exclusive, 9,000-word series on Identity & The Internet by American Reporter Webmaster Andy Oram.
Haply you shall not see me more; or if, a mangled shadow.
One reason Sherry Turkle saw the Internet through the prism of invented identity - or, perhaps, found the aspects of Internet life that corroborated her own interests as a psychologist with a fondness for postmodernism - was her choice to seek out initial contacts from serious players of 1970s multi-user dungeons. These environments were fantasy lands, entirely concerned with forged identities; indeed, it would be well-nigh impossible to create an identity in those environments that was the least bit realistic.
All the old MUDs survive, and have been joined by even more popular ones such as World of Warcraft, along with more general fantasy environments such as Second Life and IMVU. But they no longer set the tone for Internet participation. The momentum has gone to social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, and Orkut, where people are asked to bring their external life online in as genuine a fashion as possible. Disclosure rather than concealment is widely recognized now as the trend, such as heard in the conversations of leading Internet watchers at the 2008 Aspen Institute Roundtable on Information Technology.
One can see why modern commerce would prefer social networking to MUDs, because people discussing music, clothes, movies, and sports are much easier to sell things to than orcs and medieval monks. Current social network sites depend on their funding - if they have weaned themselves to any degree from venture capital - through advertising. Ironically, though, they create the kinds of empowered, self-organized communities that can find and disseminate product information on their own and therefore render advertising increasingly redundant.
MySpace has taken advertising to the next stage and become a platform whose members are the ads. Pop musicians don't need billboards and radio spots anymore; MySpace is their promotion.
But a few social network visitors still find fantasy more rewarding than the presentation of their real selves. Obvious examples include people who create dummy accounts so as to laud their own organizations or writings and rate them up.
Unlike World of Warcraft players, these forged identities move through a landscape of overwhelmingly real denizens who assume that the forged identities are real. The result can unfortunately be deadlier than the most aggressive World of Warcraft encounter.
Middle-aged men posing as teenagers to snare girls are one real danger. Terrorists are reported to do their recruiting on social networks as well. But perhaps the saddest story of forgery is the suicide of Megan Meier.
Meier was a 13-year-old girl with a history of depression - in fact, she had made suicide attempts before - and apparent difficulties fitting in at school. One of her female peers, along with two older female confederates - one of them being her 49-year-old mother, who one would have expected to have more sense - created a MySpace account purporting to be a boy named Josh. This forged Josh befriended Meier in 2006, drew close to her in a relationship that could serve in many online communities as a romantic encounter, then abruptly terminated contact - with nasty language eerily echoing the taunts Meier had repeatedly experienced from schoolmates.
Megan Meier, like a modern Ophelia, took the rejection to heart and killed herself. The plot was uncovered and the mother arrested. But now an odd legal twist intervened: no law could be found to apply. Before her case was dismissed on appeal, she was handed a misdemeanor conviction under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The prosecution hung from a thread, however, because the district attorney was reduced to arguing that her "fraud" consisted of violating a routinely ignored clause in the MySpace terms of service that prohibited misrepresenting oneself. (At the time this article is written, their terms of service require that "all registration information you submit is truthful and accurate.")
Had the original ruling been upheld, it would have instantly criminalized thousands of people, including my adult daughter, who created a Facebook account for the stuffed animal she has held on to since childhood. (Like many other people, she defies the research of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, who called the child's stuffed animal a "transitional object.")
So it is still legal to masquerade online. But while plenty of people stretch the truth, few go so far as to create an entire persona from whole cloth. Turkle points out that the strain of keeping up appearances is too great. I have reflected the difficulty of lying online by using the term "forged" for such identities - forged not just in the sense that they're fake, but in the sense that creating one recalls the intense exertion of beating a metal artifact out on the anvil.
One person who found the effort worthwhile was amateur economist Park Dae-Sung of South Korea. As profiled in the Washington Post and W"IRED, Park frequented popular web forums for financial discussions and tossed his opinions into the stew with hundreds of other casual posters. There is nothing unusual about this (my own brother likes to go on such forums), but Park distinguished himself in two ways: he predicted some of the global financial disasters that hit in late 2008, and he was so authoritative that he gave the impression he was some macher high up in government or finance.
The South Korean government was embarrassed by his accurate criticisms of the finance industry's greed and of the government's own policies. Apparently, however, some of his postings were also incorrect. Once they uncovered his identity, the police found an excuse to arrest him "on charges of spreading false data in public with a harmful intent". He was acquitted, but South Korea still appears to be a place where it's dangerous to be anonymous.
I pointed out in an earlier section of this article that logging in to a coffee shop network effectively renders one anonymous, and that some countries prohibit such logins in an anti-crime posture. Most of what the governments are fighting is the unauthorized exchange of copyrighted music and movies, although they like to claim that they're also trying to prevent violent criminals and terrorists from hiding their tracks.
One would expect restrictions on anonymity in countries that have a history of suppressing free speech or political activity. But one of the strongest controls on identity was set recently by France in a law that combats illegal file-sharing by actually forcing repeat offenders offline. The British government has recently proposed a similar bill. Clearly, to enforce a ban on Internet use, France and Britain must also prevent anonymous logins.
Once you're online, you can hide your activities with a degree of effort. In a country that monitors its residents' visits to web sites, you can run software that connects you him to another computer - probably located in a more tolerant country - to request a web page and have it tunneled back through the proxy computer.
In the 1990s, a very popular anonymous remailer was run out of Finland under the name anon.penet.fi. Anyone could send email through it; the server would assign a random email address and send it on to the requested destination. Return email would be matched up with the real email address of the original sender and delivered in the other direction.
Thew services of anon.penet.fi was heavily used by critics of the Church of Scientology to post secret church documents to public news groups. The church finally resorted to Finnish law to force the server's administrator to reveal the email address of one of these posters, and the administrator decided to shut down the server because he could no longer guarantee the anonymity it promised. In a significant historical premonition, the pretext used by the church to squelch the exchange of information was copyright infringement, the same claim that drives most of the current laws and court cases forcing ISPs to reveal their users' identities.
A more formal and sophisticated version of this proxying is provided by onion networks, which route traffic from one randomly chosen computer to another in a series, and send the replies back through the same path. To establish that the two endpoints actually exchanged traffic would be impossible later, unless an investigator could trace every link between every pair of neighbors. (There are also forms of snooping based on timing the traffic leaving and arriving at different systems, so some onion networks go so far as to insert random delays to make these attacks harder.)
The use of a proxy exposes that proxy to prosecution instead of the person it is protecting, but some proxies operate out of jurisdictions where they can advertise their services without fear, and onion networks tend to be tolerated because even law enforcement and military organizations find them useful for their own purposes. The US Navy, for instance, actively supports the development of onion networks.
In short, the Internet is not yet MySpace. With some exceptions, you can strut out onto the Internet as anyone you want to be, and duck under the radar of those who want to delve into your real identity.
Next: By Your Network They Shall Know You