On the Internet Nobody Knows You’re… an Arms Dealer

One of the oldest jokes about the internet is “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog”, by cartoonist Peter Steiner, first published in the New Yorker magazine in 1993. While the opposite is also true – internet platforms know more about us than we do ourselves sometimes – it is still relevant today. Bad actors can be invisible behind intermediaries – hosting providers, advertiser networks, payment services and so on. Netopia’s cartoonist Rodrigo makes his own interpretation of the classic cartoon: Know Your Arms Dealer Customer

As Europe awaits the Digital Services Act, this conversation is bigger than ever: can European policy find a balance where bad actors can be held to account? By requiring such intermediaries to know who they deal with? Except, does that not risk falling into the other pit – violation of privacy? Is not the anonymity part of what makes the internet great? Well, that can be debated but a simple way to avoid it is to focus on business users. A business does not have human rights (those are exclusive to humans, duh!). Enter “know your business customer”. No risk of privacy violation because there is no privacy to violate in the first place.

How broad this topic is, can be demonstrated with the report on how the domain name system was abused in the corona-crisis. Fraudsters registered domains marketing non-existent covid-tests, vaccines or treatments, a blatant attempt to exploit people’s fears. Netopia interviewed Tom Galvin who wrote a report on the topic. He recommends a broad approach with regulatory action, law enforcement and education. In this context, an intermediary that may be less obvious is ICANN, the body that operates the domain name system.

What about the administrative burden? Would a system where various kinds of intermediaries have a duty to know about their business customers be an obstacle to innovation? Red tape for SMEs? Not necessarily, the burden is on the service provider and the EULAs are already like 27 pages in many cases. Maybe for new platforms, but all the other barriers to entry make this pale in comparison. May even be a business opportunity, competing with trust. Look at dating apps, they verify users in various ways in order to weed out “catfish” – no need for government intervention there, no breaking of the internet, just the demand for a trusted environment where one can… you know open one’s bleeding heart and hope for comfort.

Which brings me to the last point: in a perfect world, the internet platforms would take such precautions without pressure from the law-maker. Look at how the games industry provides age recommendations in the Pan-European Game Information-system. Or look at how the news media upholds it publishing standards via independent “Ombudsmen”. Never too late for Big Tech to step up and stop saying “it would break the internet”.

On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog. Unless you’re a business.