Who owns your identity?

This week, danah boyd got a nasty surprise: Her identity on the popular Tumblr blogging service had been disappeared, reassigned to a corporation with a similar name to the nickname danah often uses in the online realm. While danah is a popular researcher with a wide following and tumblr quickly reacted and helped her out, the issue highlights a troubling situation in the online world: who owns your identity?

I’ve decided to explore this in a 3 part series: In this entry, I present a brief history of online identity ownership; in the next entry, I will compare and contrast the Facebook and Twitter TOS agreements; and in the last entry, I will look at the different approach people and companies are taking to managing those issues.

Online identity before the web

In the early days of the commercial internet, online identity was largely defined by which handle you were using on a variety of community-related services. You may have discussed things on usenet, an internet-wide service for discussion, or chatted on IRC, an internet-wide chatroom, but the fact was that neither of those services were owned by corporations. As a results, the mores dictating behavior on such networks were more a question of community standards than anything else. Because the communities were “relatively” small (and by relatively, I mean in relation to the size of online communities today), things worked out mostly OK.

While the internet itself had some internet-wide community tools, a few smaller micro-communities existed within that wider realm. Groups like the west-coast based WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) or the east-coast based ECHO (East Coast Hang Out) were even smaller groups without legal contracts but with established community norms for behavior. With communities numbering in the thousands, things were still manageable without contracting.

Enters the web

But then came the web and things got a little fuzzier. With the development of the web, two major new things happened: first, it became easier to navigate the internet, increasing the number of people with access to internet resources from the low millions numbers to several billions today. Secondly, and probably because of this increase in population, the number of corporate interest wanting a web presence exploded to the point of near ubiquity.

But with this came a first set of challenges. Internet Service Providers, the companies that offered access to the internet started providing individual users with the right to publish on the internet. However, along with those rights came the concept of “Terms of Services” (TOS for short) which defined what could and couldn’t be said on the services. These types of restrictions led some people to start thinking about what they needed to do to publish content on servers other than those ISPs.

Most of the people from that generation found the answer in ownership of a domain name. But ownership is an incorrect word as it is impossible to own a domain name. Today, one registers a domain, which means an individual or corporation is given the right to lease that domain name for a period of time from an accredited entity. So, for example, if I die and no one renews the lease on TNL.net, someone else could take it over.

This is far from an ideal scenario but it is, unfortunately, the best scenario currently available in terms of controlling one’s identity on the internet. Domain name registration is the closest thing anyone has to being able to owning their identity on the internet.

On to hosted services

While owning one’s domain name increases the level of control over what and how a person is represented online, it also means an increased amount of work in terms of ensuring that all the back-end pieces that make this stuff works are working. An average presence on the internet probably includes an email address and a web server. This means that someone who wants that basic set of services will need a system to run an email server to send and receive emails, and, at a minimum, a web server to serve pages, and a connection to the network. If the person wants to use software for a blog, he/she may also need a database and other components to make things work.

Unless you’re a massive geek or a large corporation, you’re unlikely to own all those components yourself. The amount of work required to keep such systems running is often higher than could be justified for a single user.

So a new group of service providers emerge to provide increasingly turn-key solutions to put behind one’s own domain name. Those companies, called hosted providers, can provide one with email services, web services, telecom services, etc… and all come with sets of legal contracts that highlight how those components can and cannot be used. This represent a return to the Terms of Services approach provided by ISPs in the 1990s and, while the contracts are generally fine for most people, they can have impact on services that are sitting on the bleeding edge of speech.

For example, it was the TOS put in place for Paypal and Amazon that were cited by those respective companies when they decided to cut off Wikileaks. Whether or not wikileaks actions were legal in the United States didn’t matter in those cases as the companies decided to make their own value judgements as to what to do with such a company. To say that such actions can have a chilling effect on free speech is merely to point out the obvious.

… and on to the social web

For many years, I’ve restricted my participation in a lot of social web components and warned others about what I see as an area that is ripe for abuse. Much as domain names were the way  to sidestep some of the issues associated being hosted on a particular ISP’s website, I worry that the “gated community” approach to a lot of web services is an area that ought to concern more people. A quick look at the Terms of Services of two of the more popular social services out there can raise some red flags (my next entry looks at Twitter and Facebook and their treatment of users).

At issue here is the fact that social services are largely hosting you. You, as an individual or corporation, get a complete infrastructure and, in exchange, only have to supply content. The services then can reuse that content in a number of ways and decide whether you are worthy or not.

This represents some pretty legal tricky grounds as individuals and corporations are now forced to swim in the same waters and the social services probably should study the corpus of laws established around domain names to figure out a model based on legal precedence. While that system is not perfect, it is the closest thing we have to a working model that balances out temporary ownership with high level of rights for holder of that temporary ownership.

Ultimately, identity ownership is bound to become one of the hot topic in the internet space as it touches on so many facets that there is no silver bullet solution that will make every happy: the challenge is in finding a compromise that will be agreeable by a majority of people.

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