How connectivity is revolutionizing everything

Identity: Identity is an industry

by Mathew Ingram

Identity on the Internet used to be a fluid concept: something that was difficult to pin down, an idea the New Yorker memorialized in a cartoon depicting the fact that “on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”

But that phenomenon has changed as the web has matured. Advertisers have thrown larger and larger sums of money at companies that can tell them exactly who someone is (or close enough), where they live, and what they like to eat or wear. At the same time, social networks such as Facebook and Google+ are placing large bets on becoming the “identity provider” for other services.

Google, for example, has said its new Google+ network is going to become part of everything the web giant touches, in part because Chairman Eric Schmidt wants the network to become an “identity service” for other features the company provides. Until very recently, Google+ had a policy of requiring real (i.e., legal) names from its users — something the company said was designed to maintain a certain decorum, but many suspected was driven by Google’s desire to eventually connect those real identities to a shopping portal of some kind or other premium service.

Google has since modified that policy, and says it will support “persistent pseudonyms,” but it remains to be seen how the company will implement that new policy. Facebook, meanwhile, has always had a “real name” policy: an approach that has been criticized by many privacy advocates, and by those who believe there is value in allowing some form of anonymity online. Dissidents in countries like Egypt and Iran, for example, have been victimized by their governments as a result of the social network’s policies, and prevented from using social tools to further their cause.

Identity online is also something governments are concerned about from a privacy perspective. Companies that track their users via cookies — including a new breed of so-called “zombie” cookies that can be regenerated even if they are deleted — have drawn fire from privacy advocates and from government, which has been trying to get the online industry to agree on implementing “Do Not Track” features into browsers and services. Facebook has been criticized for creating what some have called “ghost profiles” based on the use of its “like” buttons on websites, although the company denies doing this.

The bottom line is that identity has become a very big business online, and providing the means to verify and support that identity — as well as to track and target advertising based on it — is seen as a crucial part of any web company. But the privacy and security implications of this massive business are just being explored.