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Will the Sharing Economy Destroy Internet Privacy?

AirBnB, an app that allows people to rent out their homes, has recently announced that it will vet all potential renters to determine if they’re being honest about who they are. Pivoting off this announcement, a piece in the FT looks at the increasing push for identity verification online:

It took Facebook to change everything. Suddenly it became essential to be known online for who you are. Yet Facebook, while officially requiring its members to cleave to their “real” identities, can’t guarantee they do so.

Full verification is the next step. Airbnb’s attempt to push all 4m of its users to show hard evidence of who they are, like a passport or driver’s licence, is designed to give it a leg-up over less-trusted sites where ordinary people transact with strangers.

If Airbnb is right and people crave reassurance about real-world identity, a race to the top will follow. One of the early hopes of the internet visionaries – that the virtual world could exist separate from and in parallel to the real one – will have been disproved.

This piece describes two trends, one very good, one more worrisome. The good news: the ‘sharing economy’ is growing rapidly. Airbnb, ride shares, errand services and so on are becoming increasingly popular and profitable. Services like this will play a significant role in the future, and establishing trusted internet connections is an important part of their growth. Obviously if you rent your home to strangers you want to know that they are who they say they are.

But, at the same time, the trend toward a less anonymous internet could make it harder for those who really need and deserve some privacy to get it. Political dissidents, Saudi women who want access to interpretations of Islam less dire than what the local mullah dishes out, gay teens in Uganda coming to terms with their identity, all these could be hurt by the push to verification.

The question is whether the internet can be two things at once. Can it be both a business friendly place where identities can be verified and contracts enforced, and also a place where people can escape the snoopers and the thought police.

The world needs both kinds of net.

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  • rheddles

    Disintermediation does not always lower transaction costs. This is an example. Brokers (middlemen) should emerge who will give the buyer the assurance of legitimacy by way of their continuous presence in the market and sellers the anonymity they seek at a lower price, but not free. TANSTAAFL.

  • lehnne

    it doesn’t get any better for a police state, err, security/safety surveillance network than when the populace self reports their activities, location, contacts,and interests into huge data collection agnecies.

    • Police state, shmolice state. I have nothing to hide. The job of the police is to enforce the law. If they overstep their bounds — well, that can be reported too. And we do have our guns.

      Ultimately our liberties reside in our hearts. If a law-abiding US citizenry isn’t willing to defend itself against the outside possibility of a coup d’état, which is basically what you are talking about, then it doesn’t deserve to be free.

      That said, our public schools could do a better job of teaching American history, which is the foundation of everything.

  • Jim Luebke

    Someone needs to make a movie of Orwell’s 1984…

  • qet

    I am a dog. Internet identity verification could make things difficult.

    • Andrew Allison

      Shouldn’t your handle be “fetch”? :<)

  • Personally I would like to see a national ID. It’s anonymity in real life that bothers me most.

  • circleglider

    It’s not a “sharing economy” — services like AirBnB are simply lowering transaction costs. What they’re facilitating is real commerce indistinguishable from hotels. Calling it something completely different is a transparent ploy to evade taxes and regulations.

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