October 14, 2003

Class and Caste on the Internet


You are probably spending far too much time online when you begin to type in URLs found in the captions of cartoons. But, at the same time, you'd be smart to follow any URLs Chris Muir feels are interesting enought for "Day by Day."

That's certainly the case this morning when he points to a fascinating essay on Class warfare on the Internet.

The upper classes are not amused by efforts to level the playing field, and so while the Internet (and college subsidies) happen to do just that, the result is modern class warfare as the upper class fights back, probably by using the Internet's own tools for democracy.

One such tool is the digital identity, or the electronic signature. With Public Key Cryptography you can create an electronic key that cannot be forged, and that establishes the identity part. But these keys can also be signed by someone else, and the goal is the transference of trust: if I trust Charles, and Charles signs Vyvian's key, then I can now trust that Vyvian is who Charles says he is. If Vyvian then signs Reginald's key then Reginald is indirectly trusted, but not as much as Vyvian. If it turns out that Reginald has plans to spoil the party by signing Bubba's key, then everybody can punish Reginald by setting their software to distrust Reginald's key and any key signed with it.

These layers of signatures can be used to build a hierarchy and a new way of identifying class; if you want to create an exclusive Internet club who's members can only be two levels of trust away from Charles, then it's as simple as writing a few lines of code on the login screen. If you want to screen job applicants, then you can require their electronic signature (which could be considered reasonable now that many people apply for jobs online). These networks are cryptographically secure, so nobody from the lower classes can break into them.

A highly worthwhile look at how the Internet may not be the key to a classless society after all along with asides on how sometimes good intentions carry within them the seeds of their own defeat.

Posted by Vanderleun at October 14, 2003 9:41 AM
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