Anonymous internet use? It's totally over

Fed up with the internet? The US Air Force certainly is. It turns out that all sorts of mean and horrid bad guys think it would be funny, profitable or politically expedient to hack, spam or DDoS the USAF. And the boys with wings on their uniforms are sick and tired of having to spend their time fending off these attacks when they could be bombing a developing nation somewhere.

In an admirable display of the can-do attitude for which their nation is famous, the USAF has decided that the best way to fix this is to "rewrite the laws of cyberspace". No really. That's their plan.

So what are these "laws"? I imagine that the one they have the biggest problem with is, "On the internet, no one knows who you are." Anonymity is what lets spammers spam, hackers hack and pornographers graph their porn. But it's also what lets protesters protest and dissidents diss, so there are some genuinely valid reasons for wanting to preserve internet privacy (as opposed to just being able to pretend to your WoW guild that you are a chick, say).

Regardless of how much the politicians huff and puff over this, the technorati don't normally worry about their anonymous house blowing down because it is seen as somehow intrinsic to the medium itself. But really, that's not the case at all. It's true that the TCP/IP protocol, as currently implemented, makes it very hard to verify the source of any given network packet, but that's purely because the network architects chose to make it that way.

It would be almost as easy to design a protocol that verifies the hardware address of every computer sending a packet and then appends this to an ever-growing audit trail when the packet is forwarded to another router. If any link in the chain refuses to add its own signature to this trail, then its packets would be rejected by all other routers running the protocol.

This could begin as a separate, high security network, that runs on top of the existing internet. Initially, just military sites would use it, but it would spread as institutions and businesses appreciated the advantage of a network where anonymous net-mischief was so much harder. We at home would then need access, because otherwise we couldn't bank online or renew our road tax. And gradually, the old TCP/IP flavour of the internet would be marginalised. For a while, it would remain as a place for flame wars and porn, but eventually it would fall into disuse. This is exactly what happened to Usenet in the 1990s and it could happen to the wider internet.

Anonymous internets will always exist - the terrorists, the paedophiles and the tin-foil-hat brigade will make sure of that. But in 10 years time, the idea of the mainstream internet - the one that all of us use every day - being anonymous, will seem as quaint as a street without CCTV cameras.

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