It is time the internet had an online access passport, just like the one we have in the offline world. A verified, unique, secure ID to connect to the internet and to go about our lives and activities in the online world.
Here is how we can design it:
It can have huge implications on online behaviour and the internet economy:
Anonymity brings radical freedom of expression to those who use it in the right manner. But it is increasingly being used as a tool of misinformation and as a weapon of propaganda.
Trolls operating online are probably just regular people in the real, offline world where social norms and sanctions deter them from behaving rudely. But anonymity online releases them from any such inhibition. When there is no consequence to bad behaviour, people often behave much worse than they would otherwise.
In earlier times, the only channels of information for the people were newspapers, radio and TV. The organisations behind them operated in real buildings, cubicles and meeting rooms, their colleagues working within earshot. The industry and the organisational structures served as institutional checks and balances on the content they would put out. Credibility in the industry would be at stake if they wrote something patently false.
But now, social media has given everybody an opinion – no matter how educated – with a channel to broadcast it. This now comes without any of the accountability that comes with operating in the real, offline world.
There are online websites that are feeding misinformation and venom at an industrial scale to captivate audiences. There are people living in their own realities of “alternative facts”, wherein psychological factors such as confirmation bias and group polarisation have played no small role.
For a debate to have any result, there must be a minimum agreement over basic facts. If facts themselves are in dispute, there can be no consensus over issues. It will lead to a deadlock, suspicion and distrust of the “other” party. Without widespread consensus, our institutions of governance would lose all legitimacy and common acceptability.
Regular surveys are pointing to the same. Trust in the government, media and businesses has been falling. The world today is vulnerable to elected tyrants. If there is to be any return to sanity, there must be an online passport.
Anonymity on the internet is creating a world that could take away our freedom and security rather than expand it. With anonymity, there can be no accountability for one’s actions. Without accountability, our worst instincts would drive our online behaviour. Civilisation began only when we started following rules. How can any rules be enforced if we even tie the action to its doer?
Having an online passport would be the first step towards regulating the online world. It would sound Orwellian to the champions of online privacy. But get the irony of this: life without freedoms as depicted in Orwell’s 1984 would become reality someday, not because government installed mass surveillance systems – but because it didn’t.
If we let the internet continue unfettered, it would lead to a breakdown of all institutions that took centuries to evolve and develop. To sustain the stability and legitimacy of our institutions, and avoid collapse and chaos on a global scale, it is time we fixed this critical design flaw of the internet.