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Saturday, April 03, 2004

Online privacy 

From Slashdot, which has an excellent discussion going on the matter:

Internet News reports that ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is beginning a crackdown on invalid data in the WHOIS database.
One thing that I didn't notice in the Slashdot discussion was the issue of anonymous bloggers who have their own registered domain names. Here on blogger, it's not an issue, because a user's name and contact info can be anything he or she chooses. But what if someone, for whatever reason, doesn't want their information to be public? What if they deal in political or social opinion, and the nature of their employment or their personal situation makes them hesitant to reveal their identity? Why should they be forced to remain silent or else come forward with their name, address, and phone number? Many people would be unable to provide their valuable opinions if everyone knew who they were and who they work for. Many are just uncomfortable being known, and would prefer that their business and personal relations find out about their political leanings firsthand rather than via a Google search.

An anonymous commenter gives this hypothetical (but quite plausible) scenario:

What if I want to be able to host a website realtively anonymously, so that people don't know that I am running the website?

For example, what if I were gay, and wanted to host a website about gays, but I didn't want my employers to be able to do a search and find out that I am gay so they can discriminate against me?
That would be illegal of course, but let's not kid ourselves that it doesn't happen. Or what if the webmaster for a staunchly conservative website applies for a job, and the hiring manager is an equally staunch liberal who despises the views stated on the website? If the manager Googles the candidate and finds the website, it could cost someone a chance at a job. Again, it wouldn't be legal, but it would also be impossible to know if politics factored into the hiring decision.

Why take that chance? And why not let people contribute to the free exchange of ideas without fearing damage to their personal lives? Their ideas are no less valuable in anonymity. And sometimes, they could be more so, because they are free of preconceived notions based on the person's identity or associations. The ideas can stand on their own.

So, that's my take on online anonymity, which could be harmed by ICANN requiring correct information in the WHOIS database. Sure, there are options that allow anonymity, like Blogger or any other hosting service. But some people want or need more, and why shouldn't they be allowed to have it?
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