Viewpoint

Anonymity on the Web is irresponsible and dangerous.

If you thought the Internet was the Wild West of the 1990s, wait until you see what the new millennium has in store for us. Clue: It's not pretty. A company called Zero-Knowledge Systems Inc. began offering a service on Dec. 13 that threatens to boost the level of abuse of the Internet from today's treetop level to orbital heights. Based in Montreal, Zero-Knowledge is offering Web users the chance to assume totally hidden (read: technologically untraceable) online identities. Zero Knowledge: get it? It means even the company that issues users their online fictitious names doesn't know anything about them. What a terrific idea -- if you're a cyberpunk. On the other hand, if you happen to be a normal person, or a business person, or, worse yet, an executive, you're not going to like this idea one bit. Think about it. This new anonymity-on-the-'Net service means if I wanted to say untrue, scurrilous things about Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, or my next-door neighbor simply because I don't like their approach to business, politics, or in the case of my neighbor, where he parks his car, I can do it and get away with it without fear of being held accountable. This service was created for a certain set of technophiles -- usually those who were using the Internet years before the rest of us and who think of it as their private, totally ungovernable domain. These people have the curious notion that the frontier of cyberspace should remain forever a kind of trackless, lawless world, akin to something out of a William Gibson sci-fi novel, a wilderness that knows no bounds and within which users have complete and total freedom. Let's face it, the Internet is a great thing. It's a wonderful technology, an incredibly effective means of interactive communication between people, government, and business. No one wants to take that away. But when has there ever been a technology that so afforded its users the chance to abuse it? Already there have been numerous examples of companies and corporate executives being attacked on the Web. Until now, though, the attackers could be exposed in the courts via their e-mail addresses and Internet service providers. But with Zero-Knowledge's service, the average Joe can plunk down $50 and obtain five fake e-mail names and accounts for a year, all with the assurance that they won't be traceable, via legal pressure or any other means. The people who run Zero-Knowledge view their service as a kind of cyber-Swiss bank, enabling customers to gain online anonymity the same way an investor might obtain such assurance by having a Swiss account. Until now, some services offering purportedly "secret" e-mail names have been forced to divulge the customers' identities in court. This new service claims no such pressure will make it buckle under to the law, because it lets customers download software that scrambles their identities and transmits them through different Internet service providers. Thus Zero-Knowledge can bill its customers without really being able to match them to their fictitious user names. A Zero-Knowledge executive said the service's benefits outweigh its potential drawbacks. The company claims that its service will enable people to express unpopular opinions, visit Web sites without leaving a trace, and offer a forum for dissidents who live in totalitarian nations. Maybe, but I doubt it. Sure, anonymity is great, say, if you're trying to hide millions of dollars from the IRS. But it's not so much fun if you happen to be the person or company being attacked by [email protected] Joe can say anything about you or your products, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. The don't-mess-with-my-Internet types would call that freedom. I call it freedom without responsibility. There's another word for being attacked by someone or some group you can't see -- it's called terrorism. Similarly, in the online world, if someone throws a word-bomb at you and runs away, you've got no recourse. Truth. Accuracy. Quaint ideas both. How ridiculous for anyone to imagine that such antiquated notions could ever be used as standards for communications in the 21st century. Unfortunately, at the dawn of the new millennium, these notions may have already gone the way of the dodo and the diplodocus. Doug Bartholomew is a senior editor for IW based in San Francisco.

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