Online identities

Andrei wrote a good piece on using his own, full name, on the Web instead of a handle. It’s got some important pointers on why using your own name (or other identifiable tag) is important.

I’ve always enjoyed the benefit of having a name that stands out. Especially in Finland, where the name is nothing like a Finnish name (with the exception of my given name). And I know what Andrei means when he says that he doesn’t bother pronouncing his name over the phone and directly spells it.

Accountability is an extremely important factor. The Web is full of potential for extremely good discussions, but a limiting factor that has to be taken into account is that we simply cannot be sure that people are who they claim to be. Jacques has created a plugin for MT that allows PGP signing of comments. But even that is not good enough.

The Web-of-Trust (WoT) that PGP promotes is a good idea, but the lack of widespread use makes the webs too small for them to offer any significant benefit. Even when actively wandering the halls of the university, I didn’t know of anyone else who was interested in actively using PGP. In Finland, where we have national identity cards and unique identification systems (that still don’t fully prevent identity theft) electronic signatures are now beginning to emerge. You can get a S/MIME key-pair that is signed by the Finnish Government and use it in many online transactions as a legally accepted signature. The bank I use is going to add smartcard features with the key-pair from the Finnish govnerment to their credit- and bank cards. Thus enabling strong authentication in online banking systems and connections to various government services. Being able to sign comments, email messages to newsgroups etc. would give the messages better credibility as the author is identified. It isn’t a measure of maybe the author can be identified any longer.

But, the Web still needs services and places where you can wander and leave comments without reliable identification. Creating systems where strong idetification and authentication are possible does not directly imply that privacy and anonymity are out of the picture. On the contrary anonymity can and must be preserved in many places. And the technologies used for reliable identification can also be used towards privacy by enabling better encryption facilities. If democratic governments aren’t allowed to read my mail or tap my phones without permission, then why should I let them read my eletronic communication without any hassles?

While the Web doesn’t, and will not for quite some time, support any uniform and easily usable means of reliable identification, a person’s name or handle is the most important. Andrei uses his full name, others use handles which refer to their sites’ etc. Googlerank is a common measure by which we can evaluate how well a person’s online identity works and how identifiable it is. My given name (and handle) ranks seventh on Google today. Something that I hope this blog will, as time goes by, help increase. Using my given name in connection with my surname ranks me number one. And considering that the name isn’t all that common, AFAIK anywhere in the world, that won’t be a problem. I will easily be held accountable.