Craigslist – Who do you love?

There has been an ongoing battle between spammers and Craigslist. More recently, VoIP bloggers like Dan York, Cory Andrews, and others took note of a thread on discussing how Craigslist is preventing VoIP users from placing ads.

The blocking of VoIP and prepaid cell phone numbers by Craiglist points to the larger question of identity and trust on the Internet. There is no love between Craigslist and users.

  1. Users don’t trust Internet sites with their private information, like email and phone numbers. And rightly so. Users are constantly bombarded with email, phone, and fax advertising – the last thing they want is to let their “real” email addresses and phone numbers leak out to yet more potential spammers. Therefore, users have valid reasons for wanting to give out disposable email addresses and disposable phone numbers.
  2. Craigslist doesn’t trust users to behave. And rightly so. Fraud is rampant. Vendors and merchants of all kinds are overwhelmed by e-commerce fraud. It’s a much bigger problem than consumers, users, and the media appreciate. Therefore, Craigslist has a valid reason for identifying users.

It’s a question of accountability too. Both Craigslist and their (legitimate) users “share the love” of users being accountable for their actions. However, anonymity removes accountability – There is no “party of the first part” in the formal or informal contract between user and website.

Some people believe the solution is OpenID. Maybe. The problem is there is still a disconnect between the OpenID community and the commercial Internet e-commerce ecosystem – to the typical CFO, OpenID appears to be an “elitist” geek thing – not something for a conservative businessman to consider. Not enough sites support it – and even if they did, is an OpenID account really enough? Won’t spammers simply create “disposable” OpenID accounts too?

In the end, there are “good sites” (they don’t cause more spam for users) and “good users” (that don’t hack, spam, or steal). These good guys actually share common ground. The problem for both is identifying the good guys from the evil-doers. They both start from a position of “trust” that says “I trust that the other guy is an evil-doer until they prove me otherwise” – this is where they have to start because they have no history except “bad” history.

At one time, the Ebay trust mechanism based on reputation worked. I’m not a big Ebay user, but I’m told that it doesn’t work as well as it once did. There are scammers “buying” reputation there too and therefore diluting the value of “reputation” through this “feedback fraud”.

In short, this is a BIG problem – the kind the Internet, historically, has not been very good at fixing (like DNS, SMTP, NAT, IPv4 , the list goes on). The bad news is, by not fixing it, it invites government and “big corporate” to step in and fix it for us, or replace the open Internet with a closed “safe” one.