Anonymity with Reputation
Among the other things I learned from Natalie Solent's confession about the fraudulent episodes of her life as a university student (who didn't have them?) is that she writes under a pseudonym. Having been on the internet for nearly 11 years, this sort of thing should not suprise me, but it did. I have been reading her blog, which I believe was in place even before Samizdata launched, regularly since late 2001, and always assumed that she wrote under her True Name. I think this illustrates a fundamental, if obvious, rule of the internet - that it is easy to build reputations anonymously.
One of the problems with interactions in realspace is that even completely voluntary relations are interfered with by third parties, whether as a result of self-interest, moral outrage, power-seeking, or sheer ignorance. Cyberspace can be a way to bypass these third parties.
In cyberspace, reputation is essential. Through their writing, bloggers build reputations. With experience, readers know what to expect from bloggers, what their views on various issues are, and their general worldview. In the blogosphere, reputation is the currency that attracts readers. Nothing else needs to be known about the blogger - not where he lives, not his age, not how many children he has, not anything else about him - to maintain readership. And the blogger often has an interest in keeping his true identity a secret, especially if he holds unpopular political views.
Yet, even with anonymity, reputation exists through pseudonyms, as is the case with Natalie Solent. The revelation of pseudonymity does not affect my reading of her blog in the future. It is the content that counts.
Cyber-interaction follows this general principle. Reputations are established through experience and through intermediary rating systems. Some examples include the Truth Laid Bear Ecosystem, Amazon customer reviews and seller feedback ratings, Ebay feedback scores, and Epinions ratings. From personal experience, the reputations do play a large part in whether or not I choose to buy a particular book or use a particular vendor. And much like credit rating systems, these systems can get much more complicated.
Could governments track down bloggers who use pseudonyms and write unpopular opinions if they put their full efforts behind it? Yes, but it is expensive and time-consuming. And with a few tools that are already available, bloggers can make it essentially impossible. Public-key cryptography and anonymous remailers use mathematical algorithms to both keep anonymity and create unforgeable signatures. Third-parties like Invisiblog and Domains by Proxy can be used to do the necessary manipulations in realspace.
Similarly, outside the blogosphere, cryptography can create anonymous reputational enforcement of e-commerce. The primary qualities that buyers absolutely need to look for in a merchant are the caliber, reliability, and efficiency of his goods and services. Facts about his personal life do not matter. Strong cryptography allows for commerce to flourish away from the prying eyes of third parties. With anonymous digital cash, the anonymity can be bilateral. When these systems are fully implemented in a user-friendly way, the implications will be remarkable.