The problem: Many web sites and pages have a hidden agenda, a bias which would be obvious if we knew who was providing the information; but often there is no way to know anything about the creator of a web site or page, and so the information on the Internet becomes highly suspect.
The proposal: "All web sites should have to identify who is responsible for publishing information on the site and provide a way to contact them."
keeps this site and its author alive.
I am one who believes in identifying myself. You will find information about me throughout the web. There is a bit of a biographic synopsis on this site, and many of the pages are at least in part biographical. There is also a kind of writer's resume on my temporal anomalies site. I maintain several sites, and there are pages on most of them which tell something about who I am, give links to various e-mail boxes I maintain--even my ICQ number and AOLIM identity are out there, easily traced. I try to keep a complete index of all of the pages I've added to the web, whether on my own personal sites, my company's site, or as contributions to the sites of friends. I make myself known, identifiable, and accessible--and I reply to every letter I receive in response to a web site or news group posting (I don't do many postings). About the only information you won't find about me on my sites--my street address, my phone number, my driver's license number, and my social security number--you can probably find through other databases if you're really that interested. I'm open to being discovered.
But not everyone feels that way. My partner in creating the Multiverser game system begrudges me even the fact that his name is mentioned on the web site. He fears that someone will invade his privacy, identify his family--that one of you nut-cases out there will terrorize him. He has no web page of which I am aware; I'm told he reads news groups, but I've never known him to post anything. I've been told that he changed his ISP because too many people had his e-mail address (most of them guessed, I think). I may even hear that he has complained that I used his locally well known paranoia as an example on this web page. But it shouldn't be that way.
I am a personal friend of a web page creator who goes under the moniker Absolut_Angel. She has created a site on which she shares poetry, expressing feelings and ideas about life. It's not hidden--several people have linked pages to it and from it--but she makes no effort to promote it, beyond occasionally mentioning its existence to others she only knows through cyberspace, who also have expressed themselves through web-published poetry. But she is a private person--before she discovered the Internet, her closest friends were only rarely privileged with a peek at her poems. The Web affords her the opportunity to be heard and silent, criticized and protected, famous and unknown. Were I to reveal her true identity here, I have no doubt but that she would delete the entire site--it's a much too personal expression of her inner feelings to expose to those who casually know her.
And the Internet should have space for such as these. It is a valuable feature of the Web that we can get input from others who would never speak without the assurance that we don't know them, and can't find out who they really are. Anonymity creates freedom; and that's a good thing.
C-Net's proposal is a good thing, but it goes too far--it will remove from access the opinions of the reclusive, and the often valuable insights we gain from overly personal expressions of those who know they will not be identified.
So how do we address these very real concerns?
First, let industry leaders such as C-Net agree on a format for site creator information--a metatag perhaps, or a page link button like this one (only drawn better) which could be used to provide such information. Make it voluntary for most web sites. I'd use it; my company would use it. Some of my friends would use it, but others would not.
It seems reasonable to expect that in some cases certain information should be revealed. Pages which espouse a political position should be required to reveal whether anyone involved in the creation of that page is employed or paid directly or indirectly by any political party, organization, PAC, fund, or other group whose purpose is or includes a political agenda, or running for public office or otherwise involved in the political process--even if an unpaid volunteer in a political campaign. But I should not have to reveal whether I have made contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union or the National Rifle Association, even if I'm writing something related to their political agendas. If I'm writing about products, I should reveal if I have a connection--especially a business relationship--to a company in the field, beyond merely having purchased or tried their products. (Am I the only one who noticed that C-Net announced a joint venture with MicroSoft only a few weeks before recommending MicroSoft Internet Explorer over Netscape Navigator in an allegedly unbiased comparison--or am I remembering this wrong? I don't think I saw it mentioned at the time.) There are facts about web page creators which if known would lead the reader to suspect bias in the page. That's part of the territory of being a writer, and it's appropriate for writers to wear their colors on their sleeves, as it were. But it's never been mandatory outside of politics and business, and it should not become so now. Suffice it that we do suspect the content of pages whose authors do not reveal themselves. The Internet is becoming part of the publishing world (much to the chagrin of the publishing world, I am sure). As with any other medium, we assess the reliability of the information based on what we know about the author and publisher thereof. If I were writing a brief for court, I would have no hesitation in including a citation to The New York Times or the Boston Globe. I might not be so quick to cite the National Enquirer--not that I would ever suggest that its contents are untrue; it just lacks credibility.
A minor point: C-Net suggests that commercial web sites should have to reveal the same information given to Internic--name, street address, e-mail. My company maintains a web site to provide information about our products. Our name and several e-mail addresses are available at the site, along with our legal mailing address. We have not yet decided to register our own domain name and invest in expanding into the expenses of this greater service (such as contracts with servers). However, we have no street address at this time, and no phone number; apart from a post office box in Delaware, and a contract with another company to serve as agent for service of process, we exist solely on the Internet. We work from our homes, from our own computers, and meet in living rooms, donut shops, and, most frequently, through ICQ communications. Perhaps at some level that is the future of business, although I confess in our case it's primarily because we don't have the capital for that which we don't in the strictest sense need. I don't see that that should interfere with our ability to expand into the Web at the proper time--and we do see a domain name as a much greater priority than an office building.
If you want to know who is responsible for the content of a web site, you can discover the server, and they in most cases should know. Of course, the thousands of web sites created through GeoCities and Tripod and similar services may be harder to trace, and that certainly is a sticking point to the voluntary system--but then, the effect of a law mandating such information would either be the death knell for these wonderful services, or the creation of thousands of scofflaws who install phony information on their sites, absolutely secure in the knowledge that policing the site information is beyond the abilities of any agency. Most servers--even these--have non-negotiable rules about what is allowed on their sites, and will delete sites which are libelous or otherwise open to liability. You can usually contact the server, and inform him of a web page you find offensive, and you will usually get action on it rather quickly.
The proposal will reduce free speech on the web--and I support that far more than those do who put blue ribbons next to their ban spam campaign slogans (am I alone in seeing the irony in that?)--so I voted against it. Let existing laws concerning political advertising, fair business practice, and other truth in advertising policies be expanded to cover that which is on the Web. Let those who wish to speak from dark corners do so loudly and unmolested, so that we can hear what they would say.