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Why transparency might lead to a split of the internet?

May 29, 2011

The internet is slowly but surely starting to split into two different worlds: the ones who disclose their real identities, and the others. In one hand, some are looking for establishing a transparent world, improving trust and relationships quality, while in the other hand, some others are looking for benefiting from the natural anonymity brought by internet in order to achieve a greater freedom of expression and action…

In 2006, Mark Zuckerberg launched the “News Feed” on his world famous social media platform, Facebook. In a nutshell, it aims is to show in real time what are your friends are up to in reverse chronological order. The end of the internet privacy as we knew it, already quite torn out by the necessity to register its real identity on the website, was one step closer. Everybody (or at least here, all your friends) are able to know “things” about you without asking for your permission. The control of your information is sensibly reduced, and if not taken care promptly and efficiently, might damage your reputation and your social life.

Basically, Zuckerberg states that “having two identities for yourself (on the internet) is an example of lack of integrity”. His main idea is that a transparent internet makes relationships more legitimate, enforcing trust between people. Your are thus more willing to disclose personal information to people you are sure who they are. The privacy control that naturally goes with such system – as you don’t necessarily want that the whole world to have access to your personal information, but only people you know and trust – is not clear stated by Zuckerberg. It may either be an end by itself, meaning limiting information disclosure to solely people we trust, or only be a simple mean to content current concerns, which eventually will lead to a world where everything will be public to anyone. His adjacent idea is that transparency will prevent bad internet practices, as people will be accountable for their actions. Piracy, bullying and other bad internet attitude will be thus impossible to do without facing consequences.

Christopher “Moot” Poole, the creator of the anonymous forum website 4chan has a radically different vision of the internet. In his vision, anyone should be able to express their opinions without the risk of repercussions. Everybody needs anonymity for creativity and experimentation. He believes that the cost of failure when contributing as yourself may be too high to accept for some people, and will therefore give up on their projects. More importantly, anonymity can also be seen as a way to protect activism. For instance, the risk to get caught might be too important for Chinese activists to express their opinions on the internet using their real identities. They need to protect themselves from the government repression.

Thus, the risk is now to see internet splitting in two very different structures: a “clean, net and upper” internet where people use their real identities, only interacting with people they know and trust, and where they face the consequences of any of their action (i.e. caught smoking pot on a photo posted on Facebook by a “friend”), and a “dirty, wild and lower” internet, only used by anonymous people, with a risk of use for bad reasons such as piracy and terrorism. Even though the current internet is nowadays clearly apparent to the second option, it is likely than in the future, that dual identity which is currently possible (an identity acting as the “official” representation of themselves, and an anonymous one to do everything that the society sees as a bad behaviour) will become harder to sustain. Virtual activities on the web, such as social media, forums, or online games will tend to develop the necessity to choose between the two visions. Transparent website and social media will tend to reject anything coming from anonymous users, and therefore, turn the internet into two levels. Both structure will work on their own, with little interaction between them.

Big corporations will then jump on the difference of vision to make money, and will create systems (a new internet?) to guarantee a certain part of the population (who said old?) to have access to a trusting and securised internet against big money. They will also at the same time deprive them to a rich part of the internet created by anonymous users, and limit their access to information. Any ideas or opinions that can only be anonymously disclosed (remember the Chinese dissidents?) will be classified as part of the secondary internet, and won’t reach as many people as it used to. Creativity apart, there is a tangible risk of danger for the freedom of speech here.

Moreover, people will also tend to refrain themselves doing anything that can possibly jeopardize their virtual social life, as attending a party, in case they do something wrong under the influence of alcohol. Even though people already limit their actions for obvious social reasons, consequences will be now stretched, as internet reach everybody and virtually for ever. A simple mistake might prevent to get a desired job 20 years later. Living with the mistakes from your past might become quite common in the future. What will happen if you can no longer be a trusting person for such reason? Will you be prevented from using the trusted internet?…

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