Accountability On The WebJun 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.
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
Amazon.com 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.
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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