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Accountability On The Web

Jun 4, 2010 In Web Culture By Hans Hugli

Last month there were a series of incidents in which strangers invaded the homes of people selling items on Craigslist. This made many, including me, reluctant to post on the site

This is what a prosecutor had to say about the incidents:

"You hate to tell people to be wary of your fellow citizens, but the reality is you’ve got to be wary when you are doing something when interacting with strangers on Craigslist," prosecutor Lindquist said. (CNN, 2010)

This is Craigslist’s "answer to the problem". Seriously? Is simply "trusting your instincts" and "meeting in a public place like a café" enough? I don’t think so.

The Accountability Problem

Because most people who use sites like Craigslist do so anonymously, accountability is a challenge. You can never be sure that who you’re communicating with is who they say they are. And even if someone truthfully identifies him or herself, there can still be malicious intent.

Since we can’t measure intent, there is one obvious way around the problem: Make people correctly identify themselves.

Anonymity and Privacy


To log into Craigslist, all that’s required is a verifiable email account, which can be created in 5 minutes by anyone. This protects account owners from having others modify their information, but it doesn’t remove anonymity. No one knows who the person on the other end of the email transaction is.

The Craigslist model itself is also a problem. Like "ads wanted" in newspapers, anyone can apply. And unlike newspaper ads, using Craigslist is completely free,so there’s virtually no barrier to entry.

Facebook faces similar challenges. Last year the company implemented OpenID on their site,making it possible for users to log in with a single identity. This is a big step in the right direction, but it doesn’t help verify that people are who they say they are.

Facebook Linked Accounts

At the heart of the anonymity problem is a concern for privacy. How do we force people to identify themselves without invading privacy? How do we protect privacy without neglecting accountability? Case in point: Many Facebook users recently boycotted the site because of its "overly complex" privacy controls and "like" button, which shares too much information with others.

The crux of the issue is that privacy is at odds with a site that’s completely free to users. Facebook’s business model, for example, requires information about users to survive financially. This is a huge problem that shows just how difficult it is to solve the identity and privacy issue.

A Few Possible Fixes and eBay have a workaround for privacy: rating systems that allow users to determine how reliable a vendor or seller is. While there is some risk in using Amazon and eBay, it’s far less risky than using Craigslist.

And Twitter has introduced "verified accounts", but it took a law suit to get them to do it. Of course, Twitter still deals with impersonation issues.

What Needs To Happen

Craigslist and sites like it need more accountability than just a verified email address. A person’s identity needs to be verified. They don’t need to share that info with the world, but there needs to be some assurance.

What Will It Take?

There is very little accountability on the web today. I haven’t yet heard of lawsuits brought against Craigslist after the home invasions, but I wonder: what will it take to fix the issue?

What measures would you take to counteract this problem? Can we solve the problem without invading innocent peoples’ privacy? Should we just keep rolling the dice?

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6 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Fredrik stai Fredrik stai said on Jun 4, 2010

I actually don''t see how it is such an important issue, at least not in the case of craigslist. The world is a strange place and craigslist reflects that reality. I think we are only fooling ourselves if we think adding increased levels of control will help. Instead, I think it would kill the life and vibrancy of a site such as craigslist, good and bad.

I think trust is the key, not authentication. eBay has built up a great model based on trust, as you mention. Its users are still largely anonymous, but it works. If I were to realign craigslist''s model, I would look at the community structure and features of sites such as eBay.

Ian Muir Ian Muir said on Jun 4, 2010

Large sites like Craigslist aren''t the only places where this is an issue.

A friend of mine from college became a teacher at a private school. A disgruntled student posted several anonymous claims on various forums stating that my friend had molested him. The student later apologized and said that the posts were revenge for a bad grade.

Unfortunately, when you do a search for my friend''s name, multiple hits are about molesting students. My friend has had to switch careers and has no legal ability to get the posts removed by the forums or the student because they are all anonymous.

It''s incredibly easy for an individual to anonymously destroy a person''s life or a company''s reputation. If the tech community doesn''t figure out a solution before it gets out of control, lawmakers will try to fix it. At that point, we all lose.

fjpoblam fjpoblam said on Jun 5, 2010

To me, FB''s problem was not privacy invasion per se, but rather, "non-selective" privacy invasion. That is to say, an item shared, is shared with *all* connections (including apps), not with *selected* connections.

This leads to all manner of awkward sharings. I find it difficult to imagine not having minutiae I want to share with some but not with others.

FB also encouraged me to invade the privacy of others. For when I accepted a friend, that friend became more searchable by showing up as my friend, and became subject to the influences of my apps.

You may deduce, I dropped FB.

Lal Thomas said on Mar 9, 2011

Privacy is an issue in most of the networking sites.Using an alias name for each login or user privacy profiles can help in these situations.Privacy profiles can be just like private browsing sessions.One user can have more than one profiles,each containing rules regulating sharing of personal information.

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