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IP: 'Individual person,' or merely 'Internet Protocol'? A word on identity

"IP" may stand for "Internet Protocol" but not "Individual Person," frustrating courts across the nation. Can identity and anonymity co-exist?

"IP."

Those two letters could stand for "intellectual property." They could also stand for "Internet Protocol," most commonly used in the phrase, "IP address."

But what they most definitely don't stand for? "Individual person."

Ars Technica's Nate Anderson takes another whack at federal litigation concerning illegal downloads this week, jumping on a lawsuit accusing many John and Jane Does of illegally sharing digital files of the award-winning film The Hurt Locker.

(An awfully good movie, by the way. You ought to see it. Legally, of course.)

In his short piece, he dissects the "he-said, she-said" crossroads the DC District Court finds itself at, in which the film's producer Voltage Pictures round up a long list of IP addresses they say are responsible for the illegal downloads.

Succinctly:

  • The producer's attorneys at firm Dunlap, Grubb, and Weaver say these people committed a crime, and the IP addresses prove it.
  • The court says it can't proceed unless it has the names of real people.
  • The accused individuals and businesses deny the crimes.

The problem, as many technologists already know, is that there's an enormous gap between IP address -- a number used to locate a particular Internet-enabled device -- and individual.

Anderson lays it all out:

It’s impossible to vet the claims made in these letters, of course, but they do remind us just how opaque IP addresses can be; trying to use them like a window through which you can peek to see a particular downloader hunched over a screen is often futile. What you see instead is a machine—a router or wireless access point—that often tells you surprisingly little about who might have “done it.” Here’s a collection of just some of the many objections filling the Hurt Locker docket. Confusion is palpable in many of them as people wonder why they’re being targeted and struggle to figure out what an “open WiFi network” is and why it might cause them problems.

As federal prosecution (persecution?) picks up for Internet crimes -- from child pornography to hacking to yes, a crappy hand-held camera taping of The Hurt Locker -- the pressure is building for law enforcement (and judges, frankly) to actually connect the dots. But technologically speaking, it's not that simple.

This comes at an interesting time. Google and Facebook are in the midst of a mostly silent war over anonymity and identity in social media land, urging a traditionally anonymous Internet population to come out from the snarky handle.

For those companies, the value is in advertising: the more personalized the ads, the more successful they are, the less money that's wasted advertising to uninterested folks and the more granular the audience data around a campaign. (And for the consumer, the less chance you'll see a completely off-the-mark ad. Which is generally good, but puts the burden on you to somehow demonstrate what you're interested in.)

Both of these scenarios -- one commercial, one legal -- revolve around how one defines freedom. The anonymous see inherent freedom in operating from beneath a digital cloak; the identified see freedom in the guarantees of law. And in both scenarios right now, officials are battling with the inability to enforce any system of standards within the nebulous, borderless thing that is the Internet.

There is a small wrinkle, however. Discussing Google+, my friend Tim Carmody explains why you probably already have a real Internet identity and just don't expose it on Wired's Epicenter blog:

Let’s be clear, though: All of these changes affect only the public display of identity to other users and the open web. Google itself still wants your full identity, or at least as much identity information as possible. Other users may only get partial glimpses at your multiple and overlapping identities, as well as the information you share. Google gets everything.

Is there an answer? I'm not sure. From the looks of things, such a standard will have to come from the tech sector in concert with governments and other private firms. And I'm not sure there's a meeting room big enough to handle that crowd.

Whatever happens, it's bound to change the Internet as we know it forever. Your real identity on the Internet: are you willing to take the good with the bad? Or can anonymity and identity co-exist?

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