Ten days ago, I co-headlined a Commonwealth Club of San Francisco debate with Jimmy Wales, the founder of the hugely popular open-source internet encyclopedia Wikipedia. Held at the Bubble Lounge, a fashionable downtown San Francisco martini bar, this was a much-hyped dialectical wrestling match – pitting wiki-crusader Wales, the wannabe slayer of the Encyclopedia Britannica, against me, a wiki-sceptic lovingly described, by my internet critics, as the Antichrist of Silicon Valley. But, as so often happens at this type of staged gladiatorial contest, it transpired that Wales and I actually agreed more than we disagreed. So the debate, I suspect, might have tasted disappointingly bland for those in the Bubble Lounge audience thirsting for a splash of intellectual bloodshed to spice up their early evening Martinis.
But the one issue over which Wales and I did profoundly disagree was internet anonymity. Wiki technology undermines the authority of professional editors and enables anyone with an internet connection to automatically become an author. But when you do away with editorial gatekeepers, there is no way of checking the identity of your contributors. Thus, Wikipedia's content is created by a nameless and faceless army of potentially corrupt or ignorant contributors. Unlike Wales, I simply can't trust information when I don't know the identity of its authors. Rather than a right, I think Wikipedian editors have a responsibility to reveal who they are. As I told Jimmy Wales at our debate, I believe that Wikipedia will only become a genuinely reliable information resource when he changes the site's rules to force Wikipedians to reveal their real identities.
When it comes to the destructive consequences of online anonymity, Wikipedia is actually quite tame compared to the latest generation of open-source information sites such as GossipReport.com, AutoAdmit.com and Wikileaks.org. GossipReport.com, for example, encourages its contributors to anonymously gossip and rate people – especially politicians – in terms of their personality, looks and amorous skills in the bedroom. This site is, of course, just a way of legitimising unverified and unverifiable witch-hunts against elected officials. Meanwhile on AutoAdmit.com, a notice board for law students, anonymous correspondents have posted so much abusive content about a couple of Yale University law students that the two women have been forced to take out a lawsuit against the site (Doe versus Ciolli). Meanwhile, Wikileaks.org – a Wikipedia-style site that encourages the anonymous leaking of corporate and political documents – recently posted content from a Swiss bank (the Julius Baer Bank) that revealed personal information from some of its clients.
So how, exactly, does the American law limit the rights of anonymous internet users to post personal details about individuals, corporations or governments? It's a highly complex set of legal issues around which American courts are struggling to legislate. Take the Wikileaks.org case for example. In mid February, Jeffrey S. White, a judge at San Francisco District Federal Court, ordered that Wikileaks.org should be disabled as punishment for its anonymous posting of confidential information about clients of the Swiss bank. But on 1 March, White withdrew his order and so today Wikileaks.org is free to continue to publish its anonymous leaks.
The Wikileaks.org case shows the curse of internet anonymity can't be cured in the courts. As I told Jimmy Wales at our debate, discouraging anonymity is our collective responsibility. The solution to incivility of anonymous posts is education rather than legislation. We – parents, teachers, employers and policy makers – need to educate internet users in to understanding that anonymity is the refuge of scoundrels and cowards. Wikipedia, GossipReport.com, AutoAdmit.com and Wikileaks.org are all fostering an ugly climate of personal irresponsibility.
Internet companies are also responsible for developing websites that actively discourage anonymous posts. Google are setting an excellent example here. Knol, Google's open-source encyclopedia, has been set up to bar anonymous entries. I publicly challenge Wales to follow Knol and force Wikipedian editors to reveal their identities. Come on Jimmy! Join the war against anonymity on the internet and I'll buy you a Martini next time I run in to you at the Bubble Lounge.
Could the internet be Africa's saviour?
Another week, another wrestling match. Last week, I was in London, at the swanky Holborn headquarters of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) debating Charles Leadbeater, the author of We-Think – likely to be the most controversial book about the internet to be published in Britain this year.
Leadbeater, once a Tony Blair's internet maven, is Britain's leading digital visionary and We-Think is an optimistic take on our digital future. A highly readable British synthesis of James Surowiecki's Wisdom of the Crowds and Chris Anderson's Long Tail, Leadbeater's We-Think is definitely an important book, even for sceptics like me who are suspicious of the seductive techno-utopian promises of the Web 2.0 revolution.
The internet will revolutionise innovation, Leadbeater argues in We-Think. Collaborative websites will transform innovation from a selfish, individual preoccupation in to the socially responsible activity of the community. The internet will prioritise public interest over individual interest. The old Cartesian principle of "I think therefore I am" will be replaced by the communitarian credo of "We-Think therefore we are". The consequences of this technological revolution on the future of capitalism, private property, the law and politics will be epochal, Leadbeater promises us.
We-Think is inspiring in its analysis of the impact of the internet on the less developed world. Leadbeater suggests that the collaborative internet will foster democracy, economic equality and social justice in Africa. For this insight alone, We-Think is thoughtful. I urge you to read it.
Transparency exposes Mr Wales
Just as in politics, a week is a long time on the internet. Take the case of poor old Jimmy Wales. Last week, the Wikipedia founder was one of the boy geniuses of the Web; today, however, Wales appears anything but a genius.
His crime? Wales ended an amorous relationship with right-wing Canadian television pundit Rachel Marsden by authoring an announcement on Wikipedia. Oh dear – not exactly the most socially responsible use of open-source technology.
Equally scandalous, it seems that Wales has also been tampering with Marsden's Wikipedia entry. Ouch!