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How Wrong Was This Description Of The Internet?

Back in 1993, a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine expressed a vision of the Internet as an essentially anonymous medium:  “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”  How wrong did that turn out to be?


A couple of colleagues have asked me, “What’s your point?”, in response to this quickie post of Peter Steiner’s famous cartoon.  The point is that, in today’s digital world, not only does it seem as though everyone knows whether you are a dog or not — but so does their “Big Brother.”  Google trolls emails to send us ads, spyware is capable of recording our every keystroke, our photos are tagged, and our locations tweeted.

And everywhere our “expectation of privacy” seems increasingly unreasonable.  Steiner’s characterization of the Internet, drawn in jest even back then, is about as inaccurate a characterization of the Internet as one could possibly be.

In an interesting, if not somewhat self-serving article at its Public Policy Blog, Google’s Director of Privacy, Product and Engineering, Alma Whitten, writes:

When it comes to Google services, we support three types of use: unidentified, pseudonymous and identified. And each mode has its own particular user benefits.

Unidentified. Sometimes you want to use the web without having your online activity tied to your identity, or even a pseudonym—for example, when you’re researching a medical condition or searching for that perfect gift for a special someone. When you’re not logged into your Google Account (or if you never signed up for one), that’s how you’ll be using our services. While we need to keep information like IP addresses and cookies to provide the service, we don’t link that information to an individual account when you are logged out.

Pseudonymous. Using a pseudonym has been one of the great benefits of the Internet, because it has enabled people to express themselves freely—they may be in physical danger, looking for help, or have a condition they don’t want people to know about. People in these circumstances may need a consistent identity, but one that is not linked to their offline self. You can use pseudonyms to upload videos in YouTube or post to Blogger.

Identified. There are many times you want to share information with people and have them know who you really are. Some products such as Google Checkout rely on this type of identity assurance and require that you identify yourself to use the service. There may be other times when it’s more desirable to be identified than not, for example if you want to be part of a community action project you may ask, “How do I know these other people I see online really are community members?”


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