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A Question of Fact

A week ago, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. told the Guardian newspaper, that the internet is “In danger of being corrupted by fraudsters, liars and cheats.” He added “"There is a great danger that it becomes a place where untruths start to spread more than truths, or it becomes a place which becomes increasingly unfair in some way".

Pointing to the appearance of a growing trust deficit in the online medium, Berners-Lee was particularly worried by the growing influence of Weblogs as a challenge to the development of the web, because of “The risks associated with inaccurate, defamatory and unverifiable information.”

Many, if not most of us would agree with him and perhaps Berners-Lee has unwittingly done ‘A Jack Straw’, by challenging the comfortable assumption that the Web is moving in a positive rather than a negative direction.

From an observer’s perspective, the internet appears to be racing in a direction that is increasingly unaccountable and out of control rather than the other way around. Next year’s ecrime congress in London will be focusing strongly on identity theft and the BBC reported this week that a surge in “phishing” in the first half of 2006 has produced a sharp rise in the amount of money being lost to online banking fraud. The Association of Payment Clearing Services (APACS), reports that the number of recorded incidents rose by a multiple of 16 over the previous year; with a 55% increase in losses from online fraud against banks.

A study last month by online identity management company Garlik, reported that the average UK citizen now represents a potential £85,000 target for identity thieves, and estimated that such fraud is now compromising more than 100,000 Britons a year; increasing to 200,000 by 2010.

If crime is now an ugly cancer on the face of the internet, the growing trust deficit also has the patient walking with a distinct limp, as Berners-Lee has so astutely observed.

Outside of the established media, it’s very difficult to give credence to what one reads anymore, as the internet can be so very easily manipulated to present false or falsified information; the online encyclopedia ‘Wikipedia’ being the best example of a high profile victim of the Web’s own ‘Open Skies’ policy; one that naively expected everyone to be honest, decent or indeed, even truthful when sharing or publishing information online.

Like Berners-Lee, I am also worried by Weblogs and I have several; having been an enthusiastic ‘Blogger’ since the very beginning as a personal adjunct to my own regular columns in popular places like Silicon.Com.

In particular, I’m concerned at how anonymity can be used as a kind of club in a novel form of asymmetric warfare, one which can see individuals defamed, almost to the point of libel with no available recourse. I’ve discovered the existence of ‘Trolls’ obsessive individuals who will constantly monitor a Weblog for no other purpose than spiteful mischief-making and I’ve found that writing a popular weblog that attempts an impartial exploration of local issues is not a good idea and should carry a health warning, when people know who you are and resent one’s opinions, lifestyle, career, political affiliation or all four.

Anonymity on the Web, I’ve argued may, in principle, sound good and offer real benefits if you happen to be a ‘Blogger’ in China but with it one loses both verifiability and real accountability for the content. This harks back to the axiom that ‘On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog’.

So let’s say you disagree with what I’m writing here. In fact you disagree so much that you decide to use Blogger or some other resource to create an alternative Weblog that is packed with disinformation and defamatory at the same time. By month’s end, it’s likely that a ‘Googlebot’ has spidered the Weblog and your view of the world has, like magic, become a published form of Gospel truth.

This is, I think, what Berners-Lee is saying and this argument takes us back to a famous novel, ‘Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and a further 2000 years to Plato’s discourse with Socrates, which inspired the book: “And what is good, Phaedrus, and what is not good - need we ask anyone to tell us these things?

A problem with the nature of truth that is perhaps more immediate and dangerous in the modern world of the internet than it was in the Athens of Plato and Socrates,