The clean industry

Doc Searls brings up a conversation that started when Mary Hodder wrote a post about having to use her Yahoo identity to log into her Flickr account. The tale is rather long and involved, but it seems that the cookie that maintained her Flickr identity was reset and she was given an opportunity to log in with either her Yahoo account or her Flickr one, but once she used her Yahoo account, she would have to use it from then on.

The login ID doesn’t impact what shows for her online ID in either place, and I gather the cookie reset was only for a subset of accounts and was an error, not deliberate. I know that I haven’t had to re-login to Flickr and have been able to use my Flickr login. Even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be adverse to using my Yahoo email — none of it shows in my account, and I’m currently using my Google email account anyway.

But Doc uses this as a spring board into a criticism of the current systems of identity management that are splintered here and there and that require one to fill in data such as occupation. This allows him to bring up his treasured technical gem: a single identity for each of us that allows us to control whatever data is given to each company, rather than having to re-input data. This forms the basis of the cover story for Linux Journal, where he gives a very good summary of his involvement in the digital identity business, the Gang of Identity consisting of an inner corp of people who are all things ID, and the various identity schemes and concerns about, and/or benefits of each. It really is an excellent synopsis of the digital identity movement.

In this article, there is a great deal of discussion about Microsoft’s Identity Metasytem effort, as led by Kim Cameron. Doc has become friends with Cameron and an enthusiastic proponent of his work and his philosophy. The only concern he has is the open source licensing of the technology:

I’ve told Kim that he and Microsoft need to do more before my constituency-the Linux and Open Source development communities-takes a serious interest in the Identity Metasystem. I said, “If you don’t have an open-source license or if you start talking about IP Frameworks, my readers will leave the room.” The term IP Frameworks was used by somebody from another part of Microsoft, in respect to the WS-* standards process.

I respect Doc’s enthusiasm and have always been rather awed at his loyalty, but I think that more is at stake then an open source license for some of the technology.

As I mentioned, I have had no problems logging into Flickr but if the group wanted me to switch to my Yahoo account, it would not bother me; this is all used for public interaction anyway. I never trust anything secure or sensitive to centrally located services.

What I was more concerned about was Yahoo helping the Chinese government discover a Yahoo user in such a way leading to his *arrest and imprisonment for ten years (Rebecca MacKinnon has been convering this the most). I was especially concerned because it seems to me that my industry, the tech industry (or computer, or web) has been ‘re-defining’ its behavior lately; a re-definition that takes it from the noble principles highlighted and painted on walls (”Do no evil”) into an adherance to the bottom line in such a way to gladden any Wall Street investor’s heart.

Industries once known as the ‘clean industries’ (because of their lack of negative effect on the environment, and seemingly positive social impact) are changing the way they do business–a change that is not based in altruism. According to the article I just linked:

Rather than using their clout to help push the boundaries of free speech and information in the one-party state, critics say companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are at best turning a blind eye to the machinations of the cyber police.

“It’s too early to say that just by doing business in China and developing the internet in China they will foster democracy and human rights,” said Julien Pain, of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

Indeed, the group says there is evidence the opposite is happening, with the major web players accused in the past of pre-empting the government by routinely blocking discussions on sensitive subjects from the 1989 democracy movement to the spiritual group Falun Gong.

In fact, no tech company doing business with China can escape its complicity in helping to suppress the population of that country.

From a local perspective, meaning what does this have to do with me personally, if these companies would willingly help China censor information and willingly provide information that actually leads to the jailing of a reporter, what would they do in countries supposedly free that have passed, in panic, potentially intrusive laws based on fear of terrorism?

Countries such as, say, the United States? Countries that jail prisoners for indefinite periods without due process of law, or demand library records and investigate people just for checking out certain books?

I have no doubts that if something such as the Identity Metasystem comes into existence that the US government wouldn’t be at the doors of the companies involved, demanding a digital backdoor so that they can view a person’s activities; any person’s activities. The target would be too tempting–all that information about a person stored in one place, managed by one system. Hackers would have to earn their way in, but governments would be given the key.

Even if we discount our concerns about the government, dismiss them as paranoia, I am less than sanguine that any system would give to the users any control beyond which the companies themselves would deem beneficial for their own purposes. Companies do not act from altruism. Their actions may not necessarily be evil at heart, but they aren’t ‘good’ either.

I have different identities at many different companies I do business with, and it’s rarely a hardship to remember each. Most are based on one of three email addresses, or use a variation of three different user names (depending on how soon I’m able to register for a username, and how popular the service is). I record my passwords in a little book, hidden away in my room, which would require the government or other entity to phsyically enter my home to access them–something I would hear about from my neighbor behind me, and probably the one three doors down if they try to do so secretly. There is many levels of breakage between my identity and the government, as well as my identity and hackers, and especially my identity and corporations–and I want to keep this breakage!

Perhaps because I live in St. Louis, the netherworld of technology, which the hip and A list consider to be the ‘Out Back and Beyond’, but I’ve not seen demand for any form of Identity MetaSystem — not at a personal level. Seems to me that most people get by just fine with this somewhat fragmented environment. Not only that, but from actions I’ve seen here in Missouri, most folk–left, right, or the really strange folk in the Ozarks–would be appalled at the concept.

When there was discussion about a federal identity system, and our own state driver’s license system was considered not in compliance with Patriot Act rules, both conservatives and liberals–and in Missouri these terms really mean something–joined together to deplore the concept. Tell them you want to do the equivalent to all their online interactions, and you’ll see what happens when Missourians really get riled. Let’s just say that the West Coasters promoting this idea would be nothing more than soft, squishy, expensively dressed obstacles easily overcome in the move to trample this idea into the dirt.

I support the concept of identity research, because digital identity is not the same thing as university identity, or federated identity, or even Identity Metasystems. Companies here are interested in security, of course. We have Boeing, we have Citibank–not to mention food and pharmacy research firms. But they’ve jumped beyond the digital divide to biometrics–yes, the bionic finger. As for me personally, I wouldn’t mind eventually incorporating something such as LID into my weblogging tool, to enable people to edit their comments without being dependent on IP address. I also wouldn’t mind a good identity system that I could use for a set of similar services, such as specific social services or group membership, or for the online newspapers I subscribe to. Especially as regards the latter, these are the ones that are hard for me to remember, but I already have one identity that I can use for six of them because they’re all part of the same shared system. I don’t care who knows what I read when it comes to newspapers, but I do care about connecting this up with my financial actions, my travel, what I access at the library, my medical interactions, not to mention other services.

In other words, good identity systems within shared components of my online interactions, but not one overall system to bind them together. Too Lord of the Rings for me.

Doc wrote:

We won’t get it if we get bogged down in long-winded digressions about privacy and crypto and the big awful companies that want to keep their hands-oops, credit and membership cards-in our pockets. Those are legitimate and necessary concerns, but they are secondary to the purpose of establishing methods and protocols and technologies for the assertion of Independent Identity. And for changing the world by saving markets from the producerist mentality that has kept everybody, producers included, in darkness for more than a century.

I also feel certain that forces far more nefarious than Microsoft are hell-bent on putting the Net genie back in the telco and cableco bottles-and turning it into the distribution system for “protected content” they imagined when they made sure the “information superhighway” had asymmetrical driveways to every “consumer’s” home.

Yes, I can agree with Doc that each of us has a unique digital identity, and I can agree that work on stronger and more reliable protocols is a goodness. But that’s different than work on an overall and encompassing vendor inspired (and vendor benefiting) Identity Metasystem, and the concerns we bring up now are legitimate ones, and not secondary. I fail to see what all this -co talk has to do with anything: other than trying to replace one boogeyman with another; unless Doc’s referring to Google joining the global wireless game, in which case, I do share his concerns; but these are concerns in addition to, not instead of, those having to do with an Identity Metasystem.

To willingly place my entire digital ‘fingerprint’ in the hands of companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo? No. None of these supposedly ‘clean’ companies have lately shown me that any of them are worthy of such trust. These may seem secondary concerns to Doc, but if you ask Shi Tao in China what he thinks, I think he might urge Doc to reconsider his priorities.

*Hopefully Shi Tao won’t die in prison, or his skin will be harvested for use in cosmetics. Or that he won’t be required to do forced labor: something to think on next time you buy that Chinese manufactured item, such as your iPod.

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