The web belongs to us: how we can shut out spam and join the cyber social club

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The Independent Online

During the original dot-com boom, Esther Dyson was the first lady of the internet. Unlike many of her contemporaries, the technology sage, who has made her name over the past decade as a trend-spotter, never went away. Her latest idea is that the web is no longer the domain of corporations: it's set to become all about you and me.

During the original dot-com boom, Esther Dyson was the first lady of the internet. Unlike many of her contemporaries, the technology sage, who has made her name over the past decade as a trend-spotter, never went away. Her latest idea is that the web is no longer the domain of corporations: it's set to become all about you and me.

"We're all narcissists," she asserts. "If you go to anybody's house, there are pictures all around the place. It's the human element. The web's going to become a place for individuals."

Ms Dyson is talking at the launch of Midentity, a "personal digital identity" specialist that wants to cash in on this new dawn. The internet is no longer new or hi-tech. It's just there - in people's offices, in their homes and in their lives - as unimpressive as the phone.

Yet this internet literacy has brought with it bulging address books and vast piles of personal data that need to be constantly updated and managed. That is what service companies such as the Dyson-backed Midentity and its already established US rival, Plaxo, are offering: the ability to do it all for you. But it is not just about keeping contact details up to date; it's about managing our online life.

Simon Grice, the founder of Midentity, says: "While it's cool to be able to go to Amazon and buy a book, fundamentally the internet was designed to connect people with each other. That's when it's at its best." The next logical step is to manage these relationships. Mr Grice argues that we're already doing it, every time we block emails offering cheap Viagra: "The whole concept of spam managing is relationship managing."

This is why Ms Dyson has become involved: she believes tools such as Midentity will help people claim back the worldwide web. "Managing your relationships with other people is the key," she says. "I wanted to be involved [in Midentity] to make money out of it and provide something of value." For the same reason, she is a fan of technologies such as camera phones. "You need to be a good writer to make an interesting blog [online diary], but almost anybody can take a picture of their friends."

Another company operating in this individual-centric field is the UK's Clink Systems. It creates private networks: a website is set up and you, the user, say who can visit. The site is then able to recognise if the person is an "invited" guest and either permit or forbid entry. The software means people can access sensitive information with the assurance of privacy in the vast worldwide web.

"The internet has turned out to be so useful. People are used to applying it in different areas," says Stephan Fowler, founder of Clink. "The problem is that you are anonymous. When you go to a website, it doesn't know who you are, so it's only suitable for publishing stuff that's already public."

The other aspect of this new, people-friendly world is social networking. Sites such as tribe.net or Friendster are based on the premise that any two people are only separated by a maximum of six connections - the so-called "six degrees of separation". So the logical extension to this is that once you are connected to such a site and your own immediate, and real, friends, you are then given access to hundreds more through a personal network.

Yet like most utopias, some murky and complex issues lurk within. The biggest, by far, is privacy. For example, if you give Plaxo or Midentity access to manage your "personal digital identity", how secure will the data be? Could it be sold on, hacked, changed or abused?

Plaxo does not charge for its services, leading to accusations that it could end up selling the database of information it holds to third parties (something Plaxo vehemently denies). Midentity has got round this by charging a subscription of £24 a year, although some services, such as sending text messages to mobile phones from your desktop, cost extra. Mr Grice says he needs 50,000 signed-up users to break even, but claims the charge is more important than that as it gives people confidence the company will not need to make money elsewhere.

Both Midentity and Plaxo are strident in their claims that they put client privacy first. Midentity, for example, encrypts all the information that it holds.

When most new technologies come along, they tend to be greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by converts, and scepticism by the rest of us. Usually, it is the middle path that emerges. Which means personal digital identity management is likely to be here for the long run.

But as Ms Dyson concedes, the power to use technology - and, crucially, not to use it - is down to us. As she says: "It used to be you couldn't get enough access. Now you want fewer people getting to you. We just have to learn how to turn it off."

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