Natural anonymity comes from our ability to recognize others without the aid of an external identity system. Online interactions will only be able to mirror life-like anonymity when we can use decentralized identity systems that don't force all interactions to be under the purview of centralized, administrative identity systems.

Poison Apple Sugar Cookies

Doc Searls published a piece last week entitled "How the Cookie Poisoned the Web". Doc points to various privacy ills of Web 2.0 and in each instance says "Blame the cookie." Doc's larger point is that the web started out as a peer-to-peer publishing system that was wholly decentralized and gave everyone equal voice.

Doc continues:

But gradually a poison disabled personal agency. That poison was the cookie.

Very few web sites in the early web had identity systems. For the peer-to-peer sharing of documents and discovery via embedded links, none were needed. HTTP, the foundational protocol of the web is stateless, meaning the HTTP server does not know whether any two requests are related to each other.

Stateless is fine for document sharing and linking using hypertext. But it makes building a shopping cart really hard. Back in the mid-90's figuring out how to build a functional shopping cart was on everyone's mind, mine included. I was the cofounder and CTO of an early ecommerce site, Without changing HTTP, the most promising strategy was to include a correlation identifier in all the links generated by the site, so we'd know who was making the request. But this was buggy and caused lots of customer support issues.

A correlation identifier is a unique string that can be used to link requests. Ultimately, the the HTTP community added a correlation identifier called a "cookie" (which took its name from a correlation identifier used in unix). HTTP cookies are generated by the server and stored on the browser. Whenever the browser makes a request to the server, it sends back the cookie, allowing the server to correlate all requests from that browser.

That all sounds innocuous enough and in theory, it is. But the devil is in the details. If I'm shopping on, I want the site to keep track of me because that provides utility and convenience. But it turns out that most web pages are not a single chunk of HTML that the server sends down. They have lots of other things, like javascript files and images, embedded in them too. These other things don't have to be from the same server. Each of those servers can set a cookie as well. And since they know where they were linked from, they can correlate activity across multiple websites.

This is how (simple) ad tracking works. When you see an ad on web site A, it's being served from a server owned by an ad company that web site A has an agreement with. The ad server plants a cookie in your browser. Now you visit web site B that also includes ads from the same ad server. Your browser dutifully reports the ad server cookie back to the ad server along with the information that the ad was on web site B. The company running the ad server now knows you were on web site A and web site B (along with lots of other metadata). Rather than correlating requests on a single web site, they are using cookies to correlate your activity across the web.

This is the poison Doc is talking about. The web cookie, as designed, goes well beyond correlating activity on a single web site for purposes of creating some utility like a shopping cart or a chat server. The web cookie allows correlating activities of people across the web. And it doesn't stop with your browsing history. The ad company starts knowing other things about you (because the web sites you visit tell them) and soon they can develop a comprehensive dossier.

Like-Like Anonymity and the Administrative Internet

In real life, we often interact with others—both people and institutions—with relative anonymity. For example, if I go the store and buy a coke with cash there is no exchange of identity information necessary. Even if I use a credit card it's rarely the case that the entire transaction happens under the administrative authority of the identity system inherent in the credit card. Only the financial part of the transaction takes place in that identity system. This is true of most interactions in real life.

In contrast, in the digital world, very few meaningful transactions are done outside of some administrative identity system. There are several reasons why identity is so important in the digital world:

  • Continuity—While web sessions can be pseudonymous, as we've seen, they are often correlated across multiple independent sessions and devices using an authenticated correlation identifier. This allows, for example, the customer to have a shopping cart that not only persists across time but also on different devices.
  • Convenience—So long as the customer is authenticating, we might as well further store additional information like addresses and credit card numbers for their convenience, to extend the shopping example. Storing these allows the customer to complete transactions without having to enter the same information over and over.
  • Trust—There are some actions that should only be taken by certain people, or people in certain roles, or with specific attributes. Once a shopping site has stored my credit card, for example, I ought to be the only one who can use it. Identity systems provide authentication mechanisms as the means of knowing who is at the other end of the wire so that we know what actions they're allowed to take. This places identifiers in context so they can be trusted.
  • Surveillance—Unfortunately, identity systems also provide the means of tracking individuals across transactions for purposes of gathering data about them. This data gathering may be innocuous or nefarious, but there is no doubt that it is enabled by identity systems in use on the internet.

In real life, we do without identity systems for most things. You don't have to identify yourself to the movie theater to watch a movie or log into some system to sit in a restaurant and have a private conversation with friends. In real life, we act as embodied, independent agents. Our physical presence and the laws of physics have a lot to do with our ability to function with workable anonymity across many domains.

So, how did we get surveillance and it's attendant affects on natural anonymity as an unintended, but oft-exploited feature of administrative digital identity systems? Precisely because they are administrative.


Legibility is a term used to describe how administrative systems make things governable by simplifying, inventorying, and rationalizing things around them. James C. Scott's seminal book, Seeing Like a State, nicely analyzes legibility and its unintended consequences. Venkatesh Rao has a great summary if you'd like the TL;DR.

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott

In this wide-ranging and original book, James C. Scott analyzes failed cases of large-scale authoritarian plans in a variety of fields. Centrally managed social plans misfire, Scott argues, when they impose schematic visions that do violence to complex interdependencies that are not—and cannot—be fully understood. Further, the success of designs for social organization depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, epistemic knowledge.

Identity systems make people legible in order to offer continuity, convenience, and trust. But, as we've seen, that legibility also allows surveillance. In some respects, this is the trade off we always get with administrative systems. By creating legibility, administrative systems threaten privacy.

Administrative systems are centralized. They are owned. They are run for the purposes of their owners, not the purposes of the people or things being administered. They are bureaucracies for governing something. They rely on rules, procedures, and formal interaction patterns. Need a new password? Be sure to follow the password rules of what ever administrative system you're in.

Every interaction you have online happens under the watchful eye of a bureaucracy built to govern the system and the people using it. The bureaucracy may be benevolent, benign, or malevolent but it controls the interaction and people pay the price of the interpretive work necessary to figure out how it functions.

Real Life is Decentralized

On the other hand, in real life we interact as peers. We do interact with administrative systems of various sorts, but no one would describe that as real life. When I go to a store, I don't think about shopping within their administrative system. Rather, I walk in, look at stuff, talk to people, put things in a cart, and check out. The administrative system is there, but it's for governing the store, not the customers.

We can't have online interactions that feel like real life until we redecentralize the internet. The internet started out decentralized. The early web was decentralized. But the need for continuity, convenience, and trust led more and more interactions to happen within someone's administrative system.

Most online administrative systems make themselves as unobtrusive as they can. But there's no getting around the fact that every move we make is within a system that knows who we are and monitors what we're doing. In real life, I don't rely on the administrative system of the restaurant to identify the people I'm having dinner with. The restaurant doesn't need to check our IDs or surveil us in order to create an environment where we can talk and enjoy a meal together.

The good news is that we're finally developing the tools necessary to create decentralized online experiences. What if you could interact with your friends online on the basis of an identity that they bring to you directly—one that you could recognize and trust? You wouldn't need Facebook or WhatsApp to identify and track your friends for you.

Decentralized identity is the foundation for a decentralized web—a web that flexibly supports the kind of ad hoc interactions people have with each other all the time in real life. Until we do, we'll never get an online world that mirrors real life and its natural anonymity.

Photo Credit: Poison Apple Sugar Cookies from Angelica Made Me (unknown)

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Last modified: Tue May 25 17:56:19 2021.