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'The problem with anonymity'

What do you think about anonymity. Should people have the right to be anonymous on the internet, for instance?

A: Thats a really tough question. Anonymity is wonderful for freedom of speech. People are less restrained to speak. The problem with anonymity is it's negatively correlated with accountability. When people are anonymous, they tend to be less accountable. Think of cyberbullies, which I despise like the plague because they're such cowards and they go after young children and hide behind this anonymous veil. So I personally don't like anonymity when it's used to harm people.

Having said that, I still believe in anonymity because it does promote freedom of speech and the ability to participate in ways that perhaps you would feel unprotected in doing in participating in a forum.

My preference is persistent pseudonyms. It gives you the protection if you feel you can't do it in an identifiable way. In Germany, in fact, in their data protection law, you are required to allow people to use a pseudonym. I think that is a much better solution than total anonymity because it does provide some accountability. If you're saying really outrageous things, the company knows your true identity and can link you if necessary, but it allows you the freedom to express your views that may not be popular. I think anonymity is still a really important right.

What common misconceptions do you see people who are building websites or designing software or hardware have? Do they have common misconceptions about how to ensure privacy, or what privacy even is?

A lot of startups understandably don't have an understanding of privacy. For people like that, what I would say to them is if you can just put privacy on your radar, they should talk to somebody. If they had any questions, they could just email me. We respond to people all the time. The essentials, I would say, of privacy are about control. It's about freedom of choice, so you have to give them control over their data. If it's linked to personally identifiable data, you have to allow your customers to access the data, be transparent, tell them what you're going to do with their information.

You collect information from individuals for a purpose called the primary purpose. You don't collect it to do whatever the heck you want with it. You have to tell your customer here's why we want it, give them full notice. You need to get their consent to use the data, then you limit your use of the data to that purpose. And if you want to use it for a secondary purpose you go back to them and get additional consent. If you did all that you wouldn't have any privacy problems.

So what I would say to new startups and companies is just get a primer on privacy. Just think about it, and you only have to think about it when it's linked to personal identities. If you're collecting data and there's no name or social security number on it, you're golden, do whatever you want with it. But if there're personal identifiers linked to it, you've got to think about these things. Otherwise, it will come back to bite you.

How do you think the Do Not Track initiative spearheaded by the FTC, is going so far?

What drove Do Not Track is the lack of transparency on the part of companies. People didn't know they were being tracked. So when the Apple story broke that iPhones are tracking your geolocation data, nobody knew about it. Look, they need your geolocation data if you're asking for instructions on how to get from Point A to Point B. But they hadn't addressed it. There wasn't the transparency necessary to tell people what they were doing and why it was beneficial.

Long way of saying companies really have to be transparent with their customers, engage their customers. Do not track was a reaction to many things like that.

A lot of tracking is going on behind the scenes. People don't know it's going on. And then it engenders distrust. All of the sudden there's no confidence. That's what Do Not Track is all about. I hope something comes out of it, at the very least, in terms of getting businesses to come clean with what they're doing with your data. ®

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