Next Wednesdy, at 11am PT/2pm ET, we'll be hosting our talk with Chris Sprigman and Kal Raustiala about their book, The Knockoff Economy, which was our September book of the month (excerpt one and excerpt two). We also wanted to get moving on October's book of the month, Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity, and Anonymity on the Web, by Cole Stryker. Here's the first excerpt we'll be running, from the intro of the book.
I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they
have their real names down... I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like
they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.
In July 2011, Randi Zuckerberg, then marketing director of Facebook, uttered the words above
during a panel discussion hosted by Marie Claire magazine. She couldn't have anticipated
the firestorm those few words would generate among those already uncomfortable with the
direction the Web had taken in the preceding year.
Two years prior, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, in an interview with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, gave
the downright schoolmarmish advice, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to
know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Schmidt, who once led an antitrust
crusade against Microsoft, has claimed that Google will avoid Microsoft's missteps because
the search giant faces compelling incentives to please a customer base that will seek services
elsewhere the moment Google does anything shady. But what if Google's been tracking your
search results for your entire life? Google, just one of dozens of companies that mines user
data, knows your favorite foods, your sexual proclivities, and your medical history, to say
nothing of the personal information they host in the form of e-mails and other documents.
Would it be as simple as just walking away?
Before the Internet Age, computers were perceived by the public as unfeeling, literally
calculating metal boxes that just might help bring about a nuclear apocalypse. As machines
go, they were just as cold as their industrial-era forebears, if not more so--at least you can
watch the parts move on a steam engine. At least you knew it wasn't somehow plotting against
you. It wasn't so long ago that computers were seen as a dehumanizing tool of a dystopic new
technocracy, imbued with the fear and existential despair brought by the Cold War's lingering
sense of impending doom.
But then something changed. Today we see computers (we don't even really call them that
anymore, they're mobiles or laptops or something that sounds friendlier) as being vital, almost
countercultural gadgets that bring empowered individualism, collaborative communities,
and, depending on whom you ask, an almost spiritual enlightenment. They're sleek and sexy.
They're our salvation from a world of physical limitations and disparities. Computers help us
learn, work, and connect--Facebook now claims 850 million members, a figure that eclipses
the number of people who were online in 2004. Pop stars interface with tween girls on devices
with names like "Razr Maxx." How did we get here? How did these calculators, manipulated
by flat-topped military brainiacs in austere labs, become something so integral to the human
experience that to call them an extension of the self hardly seems like an overstatement?
Surely part of the answer is technological. We all know the first computers filled entire rooms
in order to accomplish the computational tasks that you can now do (gee whiz!) in the palm of
your hand. Another part of the transformation has to do with design evolution of machines. An iPad is certainly much sexier than bland, beige computers that existed even a decade ago.
But more than style, cost, and convenience, more than any other factor, the simple act of
linking one computer to another brought about a new stage of human social evolution, the
most rapid and far-reaching in human history with the possible exception of the printing press.
And it happened because a bunch of geeks in California, Massachusetts, and elsewhere in the
country picked up where the military-industrial complex left off after the Cold War.
The Internet could have never been born of state decree. It's too dangerous. It's too difficult to
monitor and control. It's far too unwieldy. No, something so decentralized, open, and free could
only have been conceived in an environment embodying those characteristics. The military
had designed a decentralized computer network equipped with routing and packet switching
because they wanted the system to survive if one of its nodes was located in a city that was
nuked. This open platform enabled geeks to tinker in their basements and surreptitiously fiddle
with pay phones while they made fascinating new discoveries about how communications
systems worked, and how they could overcome the restrictions around those systems.
Throughout the '80s we saw something truly magical, the formation of the first ad hoc virtual
communities--Bulletin Board Systems. It wasn't cheap, but with the right tools and know-how,
anyone could set up a BBS and start up a little nation-state that played by his rules, and if the
members of the BBS didn't like it, they could go somewhere else, or start their own. It was an
opportunity for people to become "as gods," in the words of Web pioneer Stewart Brand, in
control of their own identities, and thus their destinies, like never before. You could be gay on
the Internet and nobody could do a thing about it. You could pretend you were a cat. You could
be a prince online, whether rich or poor in reality. Now we're getting to the crux of it.
Computer technology has changed many things, but the most profound has been the ability
to empower individuals to redefine themselves in a social environment, to hack into their
personhood, their identity, and truly become who they want to be. It doesn't matter if you're
ugly or physically disabled--no one needs to know. And that freedom is contingent on the
ability of Web users to take control of their identities--to be as anonymous or pseudonymous
as they want to be.
At least, that was how it was supposed
As the Web has developed since the '80s, it's become more lucrative for people who want to
sell you things. And it follows that it's become more lucrative to become the kind of politician
who pushes for regulation of the Internet so that people who want to sell you things can do so
more efficiently. Meanwhile, the rise of social networks has been accompanied by an unsettling
accumulation of private information, given over to corporations willingly by those who wish to
seamlessly engage with the Web.
At the same time, a global network of pranksters, activists, and bullies, drawing from two
decades of privacy and free-speech activism, have taken on the anti-persona of "Anonymous,"
donning masks and causing havoc ranging from picking on classmates to bringing down the
Web sites of multinational corporations. These (mostly) smart, well-connected people from
a seemingly infinite range of backgrounds and an equally diverse set of motivations see
anonymity as a source of power, perhaps the most integral human liberty that can be provided
in a free society. They're loosely organized, and they often clash within the group. But their
amateurish disorganization mirrors the early Internet in that there's no primary control center,
no head to decapitate. Similarly, the folks behind WikiLeaks have taken up the fight against
control of the Web from a different angle. They're less chaotic, and thus more approachable to
the media. They at least operate under the pretense of working within the law, but the threat
they pose to the establishment is equally grave. Where their fathers hacked machines, these
freedom-loving network natives are hacking the media, politics, and, most important, the self,
in dynamic and unpredictable ways.
It made sense that the Internet would become a battleground between the haves and have-
nots, with information as the currency involved, whether personal or political. What we've seen
in 2010 and 2011 is that the Internet isn't quite as locked-down as power brokers thought, and
people weren't going to give up control of the open Internet without a fight.
That the Internet evolved the way it did almost seems like an accident. It spilled throughout the
globe. In many ways it upends traditional power structures, encourages unlikely alliances, and
spreads knowledge and hope for a better world. Governments and corporations may be able to
sway the gavel, the sword, the coin, but the individual controls the wires, wrangling technology
to conduct asymmetrical warfare, continuously evolving new ways to wrest control from the
The Web will continue to see warfare in the coming decade. Its primary battleground will be
the identity space. Your ability to define who you are as a human, to be as open or as private
with your personal information as you want to be, to speak out against injustices anonymously,
or to role-play as someone you wish you were--these are the freedoms we will fight to keep.
Will you decide who you are or will you be defined by the identity brokers?
On the face of it, we recognize cyber bullying, faceless slander, and data theft to be universally
recognized evils, and we should therefore do what we can to mitigate them. The simple,
obvious solution is to force everyone to wear a name tag in cyberspace, so that everyone is
responsible for their actions online, just like in the real world. Evildoers use anonymity as both a
shield and a weapon. If we rob them of both, we'll have less evil.
My position: It's just not that simple. Throughout Hacking the Future
I trace the rich heritage
of anonymous speech in a free society and examine its most popular current manifestations.
I explore the bits and bytes behind the argument. I use the technology and come face-to-
face with unspeakable evils in dark places I'd prefer never to return to. I consult the men who
shaped the Internet and the soldiers toiling in the trenches of network security who intimately
recognize the terrifying potential of the Wild Wild Web daily. I talk to code breakers, whistle-
blowers, researchers, hacktivists, and mothers.
This book is essentially a 137-page rebuttal to Ms. Zuckerberg's comments. Her attitude is
shared by many within the tech industry, and even more outside that universe. I wanted to
figure out if it's worth living with anonymity on the Internet because I believe, without a doubt,
that the Internet is the most important tool we have for promoting liberty. The identity issue
may be the most crucial decision we face in the coming decade.
The Web is being pulled in two directions. In the worst fears of free-speech advocates, the
Internet becomes tightly regulated and real-name identities are enforced, such that everything
you say can be traced back to you. The reverse dystopia is a lawless frontier, where cyber
terrorists, pedophiles, and information thieves run free. The decisions that lawmakers and CEOs
make today regarding the privacy of Internet users will determine the way the Web looks in the
future. As the "real world" and cyberspace become increasingly intertwined, society has yet to
determine if it wants the Web to be an electronic extension of one's off-line life or something