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Privacy? Good. Anonymity? Bad.

NMC/Radio and Records eChart main column as published in the 5/10/02 issue of R&R A recent column from LA Times columnist John Balzar drew a terrific parallel between how we handle altercations in a grocery store and on the open highway. In one case, pardon me's and so sorry's. In the other, raised middle fingers, and in some cases, death. All because we feel shielded and somewhat anonymous encased in our cars. In the store, if we acted the way we sometimes do on the road, we'd be inviting a brawl.

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Balzar decries the use of anonymity to reach out and hurt people online, all under the guise of "privacy." And he invokes the mantle of traditional journalism, where although we sometimes rely on anonymous sources, we do so with the standards of long standing news organizations and knowing that if we do a story, base it on unnamed sources and then the story turns out to be false, we will lose the audience's trust. Not so with the Internet. The thrust of Balzar's story has so many great takes on the privacy theme, yet clearly places the onus of accountability on us as individuals.

The Internet over the last few years has morphed from a place of wonder and excitement to a place where we don't want to allow our children to roam without direct supervision. One can download MP3 files, MPEG movie files and cracked software with the same impugnity and with the assurance that the government is unable to suss out the culprits. And our standard reaction to a copyright holder's attempts to track and prosecute people who steal intellectual property is to cluck our tongues at their "invasion" of the perp's "privacy." Is this what we want to really say? That a criminal is really a victim when we figure out who they are and what they did?

The most visceral reactions to anonymous actions on the Net tend to be in hacking incidents and virus infections. Cloaking themselves under the cover afforded them by anonymous existence in the seamy underbelly of the Net, hackers and virus writers reach out, tap our computers, destroy files, ruin our workplaces and created havoc, all with the attitude of entitlement to play with our lives. And many of my fellow journalists in outlets wired into the slash-dot style tech sector tend to egg them on with stories that glorify their exploits and reward them with extensive coverage. If we did that in radio with petty criminals operating in our local markets, our news teams would be laughingstocks.

Balzar's essential conclusion is that we should make it harder, not easier, for people to be anonymous on the Internet, and that we should clearly note the difference between maintaining one's privacy and hiding from the consequences of our actions. It's worth a read over at the LA Times site or at siliconvalley.com.



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