Children vs. Anonymity

I’m a member of the Internet Safety Technical Task Force‘s Technical Advisory Board, at the Harvard Berkman Center. We’re writing a report on technologies that protect kids online. Today, at the open meeting, we’ve been hearing short presentations from 15 companies.

I won’t comment much on the individual proposals, since the TAB has been jointly reviewing all submissions. But I will comment on how the day started, with a few words from Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal. A few choice quotes:

Anonymity on the Internet is one of the greatest threats that law enforcement sees in apprehending [criminals].

[…]

The objective is not to replace parents or to substitute for them, it’s to empower them.

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Accountability is the antidote to the dangers of anonymity.

[…]

If we can put a man on the Moon, we can make the Internet safe.

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On the Internet, there is a role for anonymity, but it ought to be constrained/limited to accommodate the safety concerns.

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Right now, it’s more like Times Square. What we want is more accountability.

[…]

If somebody says they’re 17, but they’re 37, there ought to be a way to stop it.

[…]

The role of anonymity is a limited one.

Fascinating. I think the only statement I agree with is that parents should be empowered. The other points are, in my opinion, quite dangerous. So, a few points of precise response to Attorney General Blumenthal:

  1. Anonymity is the “greatest threat” that law enforcement faces …. I don’t believe it. The physical world is generally anonymous…. except for all the traces every individual leaves as they navigate the world, traces which law enforcement can generally access by interviewing witnesses, looking up credit card and phone records, etc.. The same approach is easily achievable online. There is no need to start by having everyone tatoo their full name on their forehead. Speech can remain anonymous for the world at large, while being relatively traceable by law enforcement when needed (and with proper justification/warrants.)
  2. Putting a man on the Moon ….. has nothing to do with making the Internet safe. Putting a man on the Moon is a collaborative effort, where everyone working on the project is working towards the same goal, and the only “enemy” is Mother Nature. Making the Internet “safe” requires the consideration of a threat model where lots of evil folks are adapting their behavior to get around the protection measures. Mother Nature won’t change its rules to thwart an effort to land on the Moon, but online predators will adapt to evade detection. So the comparison is completely bogus.
  3. Constraining anonymity / privacy for the sake of the children ….. is a very misleading proposition. It’s very likely that a top-down, Internet-wide child protection solution will be useful in the short term, but will degrade in the long term as miscreants find ways around protection mechanisms (especially if you consider the overwhelming use case of teenage kids trying to access adult sites.) However, deploying lasting architecture that forces authentication will negatively affect privacy for the long term, because lost privacy is difficult to regain. By framing the problem as “anonymity vs. safety,” we’re very likely setting ourselves up for a short-term gain that quickly evaporates, in exchange for a long-term loss with consequences whose extent we can’t fully measure.

So, let’s go back to what Attorney General Blumenthal said early on: instead of altering the fabric of the Internet in a massive top-down rearchitecting effort, let’s empower the parents. We don’t need necessarily to build mandatory Internet-wide authentication architectures. We need to give parents tools to understand the threat and monitor their kids more easily. We might want to push social networks and content sites to label their content using open protocols and data formats. We might want to push large web sites to do active flagging of content using whatever dynamic analysis techniques they want to come up with.

The point is, there’s LOTS to try before we start giving up privacy and anonymity.

3 thoughts on “Children vs. Anonymity

  1. Excellent comment! Empower parents. What a novel idea. Technological solutions only work when you have parent-child communication and then there may not be a need for installing safety technology. Thanks for your insightful words.

    Dr. Larry Rosen

  2. Excellent comment! Empower parents. What a novel idea. Technological solutions only work when you have parent-child communication and then there may not be a need for installing safety technology. Thanks for your insightful words.

    Dr. Larry Rosen

  3. Pingback: The Technology Liberation Front » Age Verification Debate Continues; Schools Now at Center of Discussion

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