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Identity and Authentication: Regulability

Identity and Authentication: Regulability

This difference in the architectures of real space and cyberspace makes a big difference in the regulability of behavior in each. The absence of relatively self-authenticating facts in cyberspace makes it extremely difficult to regulate behavior there. If we could all walk around as “The Invisible Man” in real space, the same would be true about real space as well. That we’re not capable of becoming invisible in real space (or at least not easily) is an important reason that regulation can work.

Thus, for example, if a state wants to control children’s access to “indecent” speech on the Internet, the original Internet architecture provides little help. The state can say to websites, “don’t let kids see porn.” But the website operators can’t know — from the data provided by the TCP/IP protocols at least — whether the entity accessing its web page is a kid or an adult. That’s different, again, from real space. If a kid walks into a porn shop wearing a mustache and stilts, his effort to conceal is likely to fail. The attribute “being a kid” is asserted in real space, even if efforts to conceal it are possible. But in cyberspace, there’s no need to conceal, because the facts you might want to conceal about your identity (i.e., that you’re a kid) are not asserted anyway.

All this is true, at least, under the basic Internet architecture. But as the last ten years have made clear, none of this is true by necessity. To the extent that the lack of efficient technologies for authenticating facts about individuals makes it harder to regulate behavior, there are architectures that could be layered onto the TCP/IP protocol to create efficient authentication. We’re far enough into the history of the Internet to see what these technologies could look like. We’re far enough into this history to see that the trend toward this authentication is unstoppable. The only question is whether we will build into this system of authentication the kinds of protections for privacy and autonomy that are needed.

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