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You May Need a License to Read this Post February 1, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy.

Barbara Kiviat of Time.com notes that on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Microsoft’s Craig Mundie advocated the concept of a “driver’s license” for Internet use.  Specifically, the need for authentication, or positive identification, by people, computers, and programming accessing the Internet.

Barbara has some lively discussion on this post, both for and against, as you might imagine (I didn’t comment, and typically use a sobriquet when I do).  Perhaps the best argument presented for this position is that a framework of regulation and law is needed to protect the innocent and identify and punish the guilty.  The arguments against generally rail against Mundie as a representative of a company that would stand to benefit from such oversight, or protest that such oversight would impact the innocent and leave the guilty to roam free.

I confess that my own initial reaction was one of mild discomfort, although I wasn’t quite sure why.  As she usually does, Barbara chronicles reasons for the position logically to a fault (It’s not clear that Mundie’s position also represents hers, but she is clearly intrigued by the notion), but it still makes me uncomfortable.

Neither the for nor against arguments are compelling.  Whatever you may think about Microsoft, using Mundie as a proxy for all that is bad about the company is not correct.  And I wonder what the Internet would look like today (if at all), if it had begun with a comprehensive legal and regulatory framework in place.

My own belief is that the Internet remains egalitarian, with no special skills, permissions, or education required to operate it.  That attitude comes from my working class upbringing, which causes me to not support putting obstacles in the way of the economically disadvantaged.  I would rather see free as in beer and free as in freedom, to bastardize the Richard Stallman quote.

But there’s more.  It is true that authentication would make some of the commercial activities easier or at least more trustworthy.  Such a system may form the backbone of a highly reliable and complete e-commerce system.

But quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (who will watch the watchers?).  The Internet transcends national and geographical boundaries.  It spans many different cultural and value systems.  What is legal in the U.S. may not be in China (we already know that one).  Is it possible that a yet-nonexistent broad international agency could devise, investigate, and enforce a set of authentication principles worldwide?

That’s what I thought.

How about the value of anonymity?  Barbara Kiviat claims that we are not fundamentally entitled to anonymity on the Internet, and she’s correct insofar as that goes.  But much of the freedom of information access and dissemination that we see throughout the world today is dependent upon it.  Barbara, I’ll bet you a dime that much of the interaction that leads to broad social movements depends on anonymity.  While some governments and cultures don’t value such movements, they are vital to the advancement of society in general.  I’ll offer the hypothesis that authentication and the ability to form such movements are dissociative sets.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?



1. Driver’s licenses for the Internet, Part 2 - The Curious Capitalist - TIME.com - February 8, 2010

[…] careful readers can tell you, I did not endorse driver's licenses for the Internet. I think it's a fascinating construct, but […]

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