Deb Shinder wrote this in our WXPNews newsletter.

By the way, it’s a heck of a good newsletter, and I would highly recommend subscribing to it.

For many, the Internet is a “place” in cyberspace where they can shed their day to day to identities and be whomever or whatever they want to be. According to the old cartoon, “on the ‘net, nobody knows you’re a dog.” And nobody knows, unless you tell them, whether you’re young or old, male or female, black or white, married or unmarried. This carries with it the potential for getting jobs or making friendships without any of the preconceived prejudices that go with dealing with people in the “real” world. It also carries with it a lot of dangers and temptations.

As a technical writer, I do most of my work over the Internet. I have long term business relationships with people I’ve never met in person. In hiring me for a writing gig, nobody cares whether I’m a pert young pipsqueak or a dottering old lady (I’m actually somewhere in between). They’re only concerned about whether I can write the articles and be relied upon to get them in on time.

My husband and I met and got to know one another online before we ever got together in person. We each found out what the other was like on the inside before dealing with physical issues. It seems to have worked pretty well, we’re still together after more than a decade of marriage.

However, the anonymous aspect of Internet communications has its dark side, too. I know people who use it to escape from their own realities, who create whole new personas that they don when they go online. Some say this is a healthy outlet, but I’m not so sure. One thing I do know is that other people, who believe these imposters’ stories, sometimes end up getting hurt. I’ve known more than one friend who thought he/she had met the love of his/her life on the ‘Net, only to find out that to the other person, it was all a joke. In some cases, the “beloved” had lied about marital status, job, age, looks, even gender.

But it’s not just in matters of romance that ‘Net anonymity can cause problems. It also makes it easy for someone to smear another’s reputation without the victim ever having a chance to face his/her accuser or even know what provoked the smear campaign. Subtle innuendos or wild accusations against public figures get circulated widely with no original source (or a false one) given. And strangers who are upset by something you say on a mailing list, on a discussion board or on your Web site can set out to systematically destroy your reputation and credibility.

This is annoying and frustrating when it happens on a personal level. When the person with a grudge decides to try to damage your career, it’s absolutely infuriating. I write regular monthly articles on network security issues for a Web publication. Like many tech sites, this one solicits feedback from readers, in the form of a ranking system where each reader gives each article a rating from 1 (poorest) to 5 (best).

My articles have generally pulled in rankings between 3.5 to 5. Recently, however, I noticed that my latest article had a ranking of 1.3. Wow, I thought, I’d better go back and reread that. What had I said to deserve such a low score? Had I made some gigantic technical error? Had I worded something in such a way as to inadvertently be offensive? I couldn’t find any such gaffes upon reviewing the article, but then I noticed that the low score was based on almost 200 votes. Now that was strange – the article had only been posted for a couple of days, and the usual pattern is about 20 votes of the course of 3 months or more.

I went back and started looking at my previous articles on this site – and found that almost all of them had hundreds of votes and their rankings, previously averaging around 4, had all fallen into the 1s. Then I took a look at the voting system itself. The site owners had created a mechanism designed to discourage voting more than once. The purpose, I assumed, was to keep authors from giving themselves a bunch of 5s to increase their own rankings. But as I played with the system, I discovered that the “one vote” mechanism was based on cookies. To defeat it, all you had to do was clear your browser each time and you could vote as many times as you wanted.

I looked at the articles of other authors on the site and discovered that their ranking still followed the old pattern – each article had only 20-30 votes total after being posted for several months. It seemed pretty obvious that someone had mounted a targeted effort to lower the rankings on all of my articles. Who? Why? I have no idea. The site owners saw the pattern, too, and removed the bogus ratings, but the person who did this is free to do it again, to me or someone else.

Of course, the most popular abuse of anonymity on the ‘net is in the form of spam. For that reason, identity authentication solutions such as the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Microsoft’s Sender ID have been developed. If these systems become widespread, it would be much more difficult to send e-mail anonymously – or at least, to get it through to most recipients.

Of course, it wouldn’t address anonymity in chatrooms or when posting to Web sites. However, some have proposed broader based authentication systems that would assign everyone user credentials, which would be required to access the ‘Net through any computer. This would eliminate the ability to get around present identification systems such as IP address tracking by using public computers in libraries, Internet caf�s, etc. It’s a long way from becoming reality, but if Internet users continue to abuse the ‘Net’s anonymity features, it will probably be a part of the Internet of the future.

Of course, this solution poses its own concerns. Will free speech be stifled if we all know that every opinion or question we post electronically can be traced back to us? Or will such accountability just deter people from saying things on the ‘Net that they shouldn’t have been saying in the first place? Is someone who won’t sign his/her name just a coward? Or are there legitimate reasons to disguise your identity?

What do you think? Should we have a way to track and identify everyone who posts on a Web site, sends e-mail, engages in online chat or otherwise communicates over the network? Or should people have the right to hide their identities if they want to? Let us know your opinions (anonymously or not) by emailing me.

Deb Shinder