Number plates +

In a recent blog, inter alia, I used the analogy of a car number plate to suggest if  every internet user had to have one it might help reduce the level of bad behaviour online. Guess what? It seems something like it already exists. It isn’t in widespread use and in some quarters apparently there is stiff resistance to it being rolled out further.

I learned this from an article in New Scientist published on 12th August.  The authors, Sally Adlee and Carl Miller, did not advocate the solution they described.  On the contrary they ended their piece with these words

So yes, we could fix the internet and do away with all the crooks, trolls and general troublemakers. But perhaps these malcontents are the price we pay for a free and open online society. 

Adlee and Miller appear to think the most important value of the internet is as a political instrument in the fight against tyranny, oppression and totalitarians everywhere. In this they mirror all the noble optimism of the early years of cyberspace.

Yet across the whole world today a much overlooked fact is children are almost certainly the largest or one of the largest constituencies of internet users. Thus, whatever else we might hope, want or imagine the internet to be it is every bit as much a medium for youngsters and families as it is a weapon in the armoury of liberal democracy. And, of course, children and families are by no means the only significant group of internet users who have come to grief because of the way the technology can aid and abet determined wrongdoers willing to exploit the difficulties which it can place place in the way of anyone trying to identify them.

Adlee and Miller glibly engage with high level geopolitics at the expense of any evident or deep concern for  anyone or anything else. In this respect they remind me a little of guys in their late 60s or 70s who still routinely wear kaftans. Their sentimental attachment to the Summer of Love is sweet but so at odds with contemporary reality you have to worry.

A unique, permanent and traceable identifier – a  “handle”

In the early 1990s Robert Kahn, a co-developer of TCP/IP, created a system which would allow for permanent, unique and traceable digital identifiers, the shorthand for which is a “handle”. A handle could be assigned to every phone, laptop, document or part thereof. It could be attached to anything, including people.

Thus, instead of the internet simply routing anonymous data packets from A to B, with handles the internet would, in effect, be connecting digital objects. I couldn’t send or receive an object unless I had a handle myself.

What is more it looks as if the technical standards which would allow the global deployment of a handle-based system have already been agreed within the UN. Countries like China, Russia and some Arab states want to start rolling it out. Entirely understandably this has set alarm bells ringing but that is not, in and of itself without more, sufficient reason to dismiss the idea.

A database of handles would be required

A handles system would hinge on records being created and maintained. These must find their way into a database. In all probability such databases would be administered nationally and integrated into a global system, rather in the same way vehicle registration numbers are.

The DNS comes to mind. This is the internet’s global addressing system, sometimes compared to a telephone directory i.e. a mechanism for ensuring that when you type in a web address your computer will normally take you to the right place.

The dangers are obvious, but so are the advantages

Let’s say my unique identifier is RKW48, my smartphone is RKW48a, my laptop is RKW48b and so on. If the database is controlled by my government or the police who then decide I am being a nuisance and they want to cramp my style, they could just “switch off” RKW48 and that’s it. I’m  stuffed. I’m offline.

It is  therefore easy to see the dangers, but equally I think it is getting increasingly difficult to justify not doing something that would help make the rest of the world a safer place solely on the grounds that some Governments might not enter into the spirit of it and use the same technology to do bad stuff.

We’ve already been through similar arguments in respect of filtering and blocking web pages containing child sex abuse images. Yes, it is true some Governments have used the same techniques to restrict access to materials which they think threaten their grip on power, but that cannot be a good enough reason to say to children who have been raped in Aberdeen or Arkansas that they must continue to suffer images of their humiliation being accessible to anyone with a mind to look when there are tools available which could at least get rid of some, possibly most if not all, of the horrible pictures.

Societies all around the world are saying they have had enough of much of the wrong-doing that the internet is facilitating. On a global scale a “peasants’ revolt” is underway. It is unstoppable and irreversible.

Too many disparate and  irreconcilable aims?

Adlee and Miller say

If (the handles solution) is adopted globally, the new regime might just destroy the online world as we know it.

Another way of saying the same thing might be to ask how much longer the present day internet can continue to accommodate so many diverse interests?

About John Carr

John Carr is one of the world's leading authorities on children's and young people's use of digital technologies. He is Senior Technical Adviser to Bangkok-based global NGO ECPAT International, Technical Adviser to the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, which is administered by Save the Children Italy and an Advisory Council Member of Beyond Borders (Canada). Amongst other things John is or has been an Adviser to the United Nations, ITU, the European Union, the Council of Europe and European Union Agency for Network and Information Security and is a former Board Member of the UK Council for Child Internet Safety. He is Secretary of the UK's Children's Charities' Coalition on Internet Safety. John has advised many of the world's largest internet companies on online child safety. In June, 2012, John was appointed a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. More: http://johncarrcv.blogspot.com
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