A few weeks ago there was a news item about Salman Rushdie's run-in with Facebook. Facebook wanted to ensure that Rushdie's profile was indeed the Rushdie's and ended up insisting that he use his official but rarely used first name of Ahmed.
Rushdie was finally back being Salman Rushdie on Facebook, but not before a tirade on Twitter.
Interestingly, more than a year ago Amartya Sen had a problem with Facebook. An imposter was posing as Sen with a “fraudulent” Facebook profile and dispensing opinions and advice. Sen's complaint to the Facebook authorities evoked no response, it was reported.
Most of us are simply not eminent enough to be at the risk of such online ordeals. But Sen and Rushdie's experiences bring to light a key question around online social media: Am I who I say I am?
Who doesn't know a fifty-something posting a twenty-something picture on his/her online profile! And we all know of colleagues and even friends, whose careers on professional networking websites seem so much brighter than they actually are. The extent of online lying has been established in many scientific studies (http://bit.ly/tAjTSX). Why is the question of identity on the World Wide Web so difficult to fix? The answer relates to a fundamental design principle of the Web.
In the physical world, an individual's identity is verified by something such as a passport, granted by some central authority, such as the Government. The key theme of web governance is that there is no Government.
One of the most important reasons contributing to the Web's phenomenal rise and sustenance since the early 1990s has been this deliberate lack of centralised control. The Web's scalability comes from the fact that no single entity can act as a gatekeeper and no content on the Web needs to be vetted by some Big Brother.
This lack of central control carries deep implications for the Web's impact on our lives and society. Where would have been the Arab Spring, if the Web was fettered?
Throughout the Web's history there have been numerous attempts to create “walled gardens” — carefully crafted playpens for web users under the control of some commercial interest. It has been very fortunate for the world that all these attempts have failed. But the walled garden idea is too alluring for vested interests to let it die.
Recently, online social media companies have been rushing to offer a unified experience to their users, allowing users to seamlessly shuttle back and forth between cliques of websites and online services. The price seems little in the short run. After all, the companies only want bits of our data, seemingly innocuous in isolation. But the same data is formidable in aggregate, and the price may be too heavy in the long run. Each company is vying to be that central authority the Web has no place for.
As our real and virtual lives increasingly converge, it is critical there is some way to validate that we are indeed who we say we are. This calls for a serious thinking around the Web's architecture and refining it for the future, as necessary. Efforts are already afoot in that direction. Until they are complete, we need to be very careful of the motives of entities who promise to vouch for our online identities in return for our information.
(The writer is an author, practitioner, researcher and teacher in the computing discipline)