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    Internet Evolution Interviews Esther Dyson, Information Technology Expert

    Found via Slashdot.

    Internet Evolution has an interview with Esther Dyson, an expert on information technology and a former chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit that coordinates the distribution of Internet domain names. She also was one of the first volunteers for the Personal Genome Project and published her genetic data on the Internet.

    There are a couple interesting exchanges concerning anonymity and privacy, which are distinct concepts. First, Dyson notes her distaste for anonymity.

    Internet Evolution: You’ve had a front-row seat for the commercialization, regulation, and funding of the Internet. What’s been the biggest surprise for you about how the Internet has evolved? And what’s been your biggest disappointment?

    Esther Dyson: Well, surprise and disappointment are the same… There are two big things: First, I was a much bigger fan of anonymity then than I am now. I thought it was cool. And it is, but it turns out anonymity really encourages bad behavior. I’m not in favor of the government tracking everybody and so forth, [but] at least persistent pseudonyms and communities and stuff like that makes everything a nicer place.

    It’s like a lot of things. I’m pro choice, but I think abortion is an unfortunate thing. I think the same thing about anonymity: Everybody should have the right to it, but it’s not something one wants to encourage. And that’s not weasel words, that’s the reality of it.

    [Anonymity] should be allowed. People should be able to make that choice, and there are many reasons to make that choice. If you live in an oppressive regime, you may well want people to be able to remain anonymous or have secret communications. But at the same time, it should not be encouraged, and it should be acknowledged that it’s a response to a bad situation. [...]

    I disagree; anonymity is not ugliness that must be grudgingly accepted. It is a necessity that promotes free speech, creativity, and (sometimes) security. Security expert Bruce Schneier wrote about the issue a couple of years ago, and the title is especially appropriate: “Anonymity Won’t Kill the Internet.” Schneier writes:

    The problem isn’t anonymity; it’s accountability. If someone isn’t accountable, then knowing his name doesn’t help. If you have someone who is completely anonymous, yet just as completely accountable, then — heck, just call him Fred.

    History is filled with bandits and pirates who amass reputations without anyone knowing their real names.

    EBay’s feedback system doesn’t work because there’s a traceable identity behind that anonymous nickname. EBay’s feedback system works because each anonymous nickname comes with a record of previous transactions attached, and if someone cheats someone else then everybody knows it. [...]

    In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need anonymity. It wouldn’t be necessary for commerce, since no one would ostracize or blackmail you based on what you purchased. It wouldn’t be necessary for internet activities, because no one would blackmail or arrest you based on who you corresponded with or what you read. It wouldn’t be necessary for AIDS patients, members of fringe political parties or people who call suicide hotlines. Yes, criminals use anonymity, just like they use everything else society has to offer. But the benefits of anonymity — extensively discussed in an excellent essay by Gary T. Marx — far outweigh the risks.

    Dyson also discusses genetic privacy, which she believes is less problematic than general medical privacy.

    IE: You’ve joined the Human Genome Project and posted your genetic information on the Web. What do you think of the future of the Internet with regard to how we manage our health and how we think about it?

    Dyson: It’s a hugely powerful information medium, everything from collecting genetic data and health data to do research… getting online and sharing data with other people. Motivating patients… getting people to support you in your campaign to stop drinking or to sleep more or better, or finding people with similar problems and a place to share stories or get encouragement — and the shared availability of good health information.

    IE: Do you suggest other people put their genetic information on the Internet?

    Dyson: It’s not as scary as people think… I don’t think it’s a moral imperative to do so. I don’t think it makes me a good person to have done so. But I want people not to be afraid of it. There are people with lots of legitimate reasons that don’t want their data up, and that’s fine with me. I don’t want people to be scared of that… I want to reduce some of the mystery and fear that surrounds genetic information. And if I were concerned about people’s privacy, frankly, I’d be much more concerned about people’s health information than their genetic information. Health information is way more personal.

    Yes, currently there are far more threats to general medical privacy than to genetic privacy. However, that will change as genetic data becomes more prevalent. There is an ongoing debate about the misuse and abuse of genetic data. States and the US government have passed laws attempting to protect genetic privacy. Your DNA can show your susceptibility for diseases, among other things. There are numerous ways that genetic data can be used against an individual, and I believe the privacy risks are just as strong when a person exposes her DNA as it would be if she exposed her medical history.

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