Former Obama aide: 'Anonymity is over' on Web; what you shop for will be known

A former White House official believes "anonymity is over" in the blossoming world of Internet commerce.

When asked as part of the Pew Center's latest Web survey how online businesses and services might treat users' identities 10 years from now, former National Economic Council member Susan Crawford predicted: "We'll be known to others as a condition of doing all we want to do."

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"That may not be all bad news -- we'll get loyalty points, after all -- but we'll have to ensure that traditionally anonymous political speech and criticism is somehow protected," added Crawford, who assisted the White House when it drafted its team to lead the Federal Communications Commission. She took a one-year sabbatical from her faculty position at the University of Michigan Law School in 2009 to be President Barack Obama's special assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy.

"When it comes to commerce, anonymity is over,” she said.

The question of how Internet companies, services and networks might treat our identities in 2020 is one of many areas explored by the Pew Internet and American Life Project's annual "Future of the Internet" survey, released Friday. The project asks industry experts to hypothesize how the always-burgeoning medium might look in the not-distant future.

A number of respondents expressed concern that the Internet's prevalence might erode the its historical capabilities for anonymous browsing, shopping and communicating -- Crawford included.


But not all shared her fears. Among them was Link Hoewing, vice president of Information Technology at Verizon, who told Pew he believed anonymity would remain as "important" force for "involvement and participation" on the Web.

"We will find ways to keep this balance between the need for anonymity in public settings and identifying ourselves in settings where it is critical to know who you are dealing with," he said.

"Ironically, users themselves may well demand more and more that people identify who they are and authenticate," Hoewing added. "They often feel their privacy is threatened by people they don't know who somehow ‘know them.'"