The Thoughtless Embrace of “Accountability”

I was catching up on the back issues of Wired scattered around my house and there in the September issue (the one with Beck on the cover) I found an article by Charles C. Mann that started out thoughtful but ended up maddening.

The story dissected the threat posed by splogs (and link farms and comment spam and the like) to the vitality of the interactive internet (what some people persist in calling “Web 2.0” –although the New York Times now confusingly says that the “semantic web” is “Web 3.0″!). These are familiar nusiances to blog writers and readers, but the Wired treatment was one of the best general-readership summaries of the problem I had seen. As the article explains:

[S]ploggers and other Web spammers make most of their money by getting viewers to click on ads that run adjacent to their nonsensical text. Web page owners – the spammer, in this case – get paid by the advertiser every time someone clicks on an ad. … Because the ad money is effectively available only to Web sites that appear in the first page or two of search results, spammers devote enormous efforts to gaming Google, Yahoo, and their ilk. Search engines rank Web sites in large part by counting the number of other sites that link to them, assigning higher placement in results to sites popular enough to be referred to by many others. To mimic this popularity, spammers create bogus networks of interconnected sites called link farms.

The story (worth reading despite the serious objection I am about to discuss) reviews various economic and technological approaches for dealing with the problem, particularly captchas and various automated filtering approaches such as Akismet. Author Mann quotes observers like David Sifry of Technorati and WordPress (and Akismet) developer Matt Mullenweg, who (1) acknowledge that there will be a bit of a technological “arms race” against the sploggers but (2) consider that effort to be the price we pay for an open, distributed, interactive, user-centered network — for, in other words, a “generative internet” (an important concept from Jonathan Zittrain that I have discussed here, here, and here).

Then, four paragraphs from the end of the not-short article, after all the discussion of these technological fixes, Mann suddenly becomes dispirited and closes with an apparent endorsement of the alternative path laid out by Six Apart executive Anil Dash. According to Dash, “the spammers are too good” and we cannot “muddle through” with such technological fixes. Instead:

Ultimately, [Dash] thinks, “the solution is going to be accountability…” [T]here will have to be some kind of global identifier – an Internet Social Security number, so to speak. Everyone could select a personal URL, he says, such as their blog address. Dash concedes that such global identifiers would alarm privacy activists. But the other solutions are even worse…

“Alarmed” is not quite the word for my reaction when this heretofore sensible discussion about technological fixes concluded abruptly, blithely, and without any exploration, by saying more or less: Oh well, no more online anonymous speech I guess. The End.

There are serious and genuine threats posed by the openness of distributed network architecture. I am not denying those threats. But there also seem to be some pretty good solutions out there, getting better all the time. They are not perfect, but they appear sufficient to allow for much of the functionality we seek. Advocates of mandatory authenticated identity think they have a better solution, but I just don’t see it.

The evident benefits of online anonymity (including pseudonynity) range from matters of life and death (e.g. political dissidents speaking out in repressive regimes) to individual self-expression and communication (e.g. open and frank discussions about sensitive topics such as politics, religion, sex, or health) to convenience and data privacy (e.g. using psudonyms to avoid data mining — or at least direct the resultant marketing to a web mail account maintained for the purpose). These are not to be dismissed lightly.

Maybe — maybe — I might be less “alarmed” if I believed this sort of accountability would really work. But it can represent an improvement over the current arms race only if it is implemented by technology that cannot be gamed by all these devious sploggers and spammers. Leave any scope for remaining anonymous and the bad guys will exploit it. Then we’ll have the same arms race played out with different weapons, while at the same time making anonymity even harder to obtain for average internet users. You have to be skeptical, at the design level, that we can build perfect identity technology any more easily than we can build perfect filtering technology or perfect captchas.

Even more than my disagreement with the substance of the conclusion, though, I was infuriated by its glibness. This was a perfect example of an all-too-typical attitude among certain types of techies. They see anonymity as, at most, a nice extra, but not fundamental to what makes the internet wonderful. At least I could respect a sober analysis of costs and benefits that acknowledges the importance of anonymity. Too often one encounters this sort of gearheaded tunnel vision instead.

8 Responses to “The Thoughtless Embrace of “Accountability””

  1. Even more than my disagreement with the substance of the conclusion, though, I was infuriated by its glibness.

    This is so often the crux of the problem in the techie/IP world and elsewhere: good ideas badly propounded by the attitudinally challenged. Here, of course, the idea stinks, too. I agree that the solutions to date “appear sufficient to allow for much of the functionality we seek.” But this post prompts me to note the “generativity” of spam, too, particularly e-mail spam itself generated by Bayesian poisoning. I am always thrilled to read the stuff, as it reminds me of one of the gloriously silly poems of the English language, Kenneth Koch’s When the Sun Tries to Go On of 1969. For excertps, see David Lehmann’s early review. In at least this one respect, Koch was way ahead of his time.

  2. I should clarify — as often happens in press stories that cover complicated topics, my words were my own but didn’t necessarily represent my complete thoughts on the subject. (That’s not a criticism of Charles Mann, who I think is a very talented writer, but rather a reflection of the constraints of the medium.)

    I’m a strong supporter of the concept of online anonymity, as evidenced by my long-time support of and donations to organizations like the EFF. But I think you’re creating a false dichotomy here — an identification system such as I was (vaguely) describing would use URLs as one form of identification. This would be an option for site owners who want to require ID from commenters, and I think site owners *should* have absolute control over who can use their website as a forum for discussion.

    Second, centralized comment filtering services are by no means “more anonymous” than requiring a simple sign-in. As the AOL search data leak shows us, merely omitting a login isn’t enough to anonymize data.

    I don’t think you do justice to the nuance of Mann’s article, nor to the breadth of discussion on this topic to present it in such binary terms. And I always suspect, when any article seems to end with an abrupt conclusion, that the piece may have suffered during editing.

    In short, while I understand your frustration with the (apparent) embrace of techniques you don’t support, I hope you’ll give the benefit of the doubt to both the writer and me, the person being quoted, that perhaps we’re not quite as clueless or malevolent as you might suspect.

  3. [...] The Thoughtless Embrace of “Accountability” Comment » [...]

  4. I am going to try to put a slighly different perspective on this, because I am one of the people who sees value in creating “niche websites” that may or may not be built upon a CMS platform such as WordPress.

    First of all, I touch briefly on some legal subjects, and I would like to state that I am not a lawyer. Everything I state is my personal opinion.

    Many people online, and especially “bloggers” tend to look on things in purely “black or white”.

    They seem to regard “blogging software” as purely an application for keeping a diary, and not as a highly versatile light-weight CMS package.

    There is an extreme tendancy to relate RSS syndication as something exclusive to blogging, and argue that they have the implied right to share every piece of content they subscribe to, irrespective of copyright of the content or images.

    There are splog websites out there that are generated from purely scraped content, or randomly generated words, and I am not defending such sites.

    Here is a typical example of the type of site that is frequently labelled as a splog, but is actually quite legitimate in purpose and content.

    First of all, a niche marketer is adept at keyword research. There has been a lot of talk about “the long tail”. Most niche marketers focus on the long tail.

    Often they are accused of creating content “made for the search engines”. That is actually a very short sighted view. The content is actually targetted for searchers using search engines, who happen to type in long-tail search terms. That is actually the vast majority of search traffic.
    By targetting long-tail search terms, they are helping users find the information they are looking for.

    The creator of a niche website (at least the legitimate ones), will use content they have permission to use, though this might be duplicate content that other people also have the rights to use.

    Sources of Content

    1. Directories of freely distributed articles, often by respected authors who are experts in their field. This is a form of content syndication that predates blogging and RSS syndication.

    2. Freelance Writers – the creator of a niche website will find a writer with sufficient knowledge of the niche subject to write some articles about it

    3. Private Label Rights – the legitimate providers of private label rights use Freelance Writers to provide content, and also check all content provided for plagiarism. Rights to use the content is conveyed to subscribers of the content.

    4. Their own unique content

    There are differing costs related to each source of content, and different restrictions. Articles from an article directory are much harder to make “unique” in the eyes of search engines, and it is much harder to use them to target long-tail keywords from within the body of the text. It is also harder to include LSI related terms in the body of the article.
    Such content also has “leaks”, both from an SEO perspective and from a reader perspective.

    Use of 3rd party content is quite prevalent among national “authority” news sites. Why is it always frowned upon when the little guy tries to do the same?
    Such sites also provide RSS feeds of their duplicate syndicated content.
    When the little guy tries to do the same by publishing their content on a light-weight CMS blogging platform, his website is labelled a splog.

    Creators of niche websites using content they are legally entitled to use (though duplicate), are probably on much more stable legal ground than bloggers who feel they are doing their readership a favor by providing them with full content “linkblogs” from their favorite sites.

    To mimic this popularity, spammers create bogus networks of interconnected sites called link farms.

    The internet is all about interconnected content.

    2 of the biggest linkfarms on the internet are About.com and WordPress.com

    The little guy hasn’t achieved authority status yet, but is emulating the practices of the major players.

    By creating a network of content sites, a good niche marketer doesn’t need to pay for advertising, or buy text links from “legitimate” websites.

    ~ Value to Advertisers? ~

    Google trains content publisher is advertising placement and ways to encourage clicks on advertising content by blending adverts in with content.

    At the same time, Google in some way balances the amount paid per click based upon how that advertising “click” converts for their advertising customer.

    They also have guidelines regarding providing content on your website. Most niche websites, if the advertising was removed, would still give value to the visitor.
    The content would typically be more highly focused on exactly what the customer is looking for, otherwise they would never have found the content in the first place.
    Google rankings are not just based upon spamming keywords, but also subtle page characteristics such as LSI, and also both internal (often ignored) and external linking structures.

    It is my personal belief that it is entirely ethical to build your own mini version of About.com, targetting subjects not already covered on their site, or targetting a specific niche within a topic a site like About.com may only touch on briefly.

    As to your closing points.

    If you are totally anonymous, it is much harder to be procecuted for copyright theft
    If someone is totally anonymous, how do they handle disclosure?
    Someone arguing a political position on a blog can gain massive exposure for very little expense = a major cost saving, thus the blog is effectively commercial.
    However in recent times bloggers have been attacked who have no agenda other than they make the occasional sponsored post (which they declare), and earn $10 for doing so.

    Looking on this from a business point of view, the anonymous political blogger has more commercial benefit than the blogger with commercial post, yet the political blogger is encouraged, and the blogger earning $10 to feed their kids is shut down as a spammer.

    Nothing online is black and white…

  5. [...] WordPress guy Matt Mullenweg, who knows a thing or two about spam, points to a piece by William McGeveran that effectively characterizes Six Apart’s Anil Dash as succumbing to “gearheaded tunnel vision.” [...]

  6. Anil:

    Thanks very much for the response. I am sorry if my post magnified any misimpression left by the article about your views. And having worked in a previous life as a political press secretary, I know how even the best journalism sometimes cannot tell the whole story — which is frustrating for those depicted in it!

    There certainly are lots of smart and respected people out there who embrace mandatory authentication technology as an integral component of the future internet. Some of them are searching — in good faith but perhaps fruitlessly — for a “user-centric” identity model that they hope will enhance rather than degrade privacy and anonymity. I happen to disagree with most of them, but putting you in the company of those smart people (rightly or wrongly) is hardly a slur.

    I understand your point about giving control over anonymity to site owners. But I remain skeptical about it because: (1) most such systems I have seen appear to be sufficiently porous for the bad guys to remain effectively anonymous while the rest of us who follow the rules will be unable to preserve anonymity and (2) the creation of unique IDs for narrow purposes leads inexorably to a sort of “mission creep,” as we see from the use of social security numbers for a vast array of identity verification.

    And while the AOL leak (among many others) shows that all sorts of systems may breach anonymity, some are more likely to do so than others. A unique ID does so by design, while some others do so only when there is a failure of the system (or, as in the AOL case, its human operators).

    Anyway, my real criticism here is of the article and its sharp turn into a controversial area without sufficient analysis. That’s the gearheaded tunnel vision.  I share your suspicion that the Wired editors may be more responsible for this than Mr. Mann. But whoever did it, it was a disservice to you (as your comments suggest), to readers, and to the principle that anonymity is important to more than just some silly “alarmed” privacy advocates.

  7. Even with its faults, the article was a good overview for a tech-challenged blogger like me, and I appreciate the link. The bit about Mullenweg launching Akismet when his mother started to blog was heartwarming. I actually kind of enjoy the thought that blogging is turning into something of an arms race between humans and robots — gives it a whole science-fictiony kind of vibe. But if I didn’t have Akismet, I’m sure I’d be a lot less amused.

  8. Although I personally dislike anonymity on the web, alarm would defnitely describe my reaction to an internet SSL equivalent.

    My aversion to anonymity does not extend to areas in which I recognize it serving a useful purpose. I firmly believe, though, that it is too much used as almost a fun toy, in a irresponsible manner and without concern for the consequences.

    What concerns me about the subject of your post, and the article it refers to, is the contrast between anonymity/security/privacy and some authoritarian ‘Big Brother’ verifier, with seemingly no recognition of alternatives.

    As more individuals shed anonymity, whether openly or within guarded environment, I’ve been encouraged to read recognition and validation of ‘personally accountable’ voices. I really believe that we need to be personally more open and responsible within our online communities, but would consider a 3rd party regular of this obtrusive and offensive.

    If ‘we’ are mostly anonymous, we have a harder time protecting ourselves. ‘we’ are doing things about that with security measures. Can ‘we’ not do the same for ourselves personally, in relationships, and in our communities, and thereby for one another as well?

    Vera