Enabling every user with a unique internet culture ID

7 Dec 2016 13:00h - 14:30h

Event report

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Should there be a unique online identifier for every user? What role does email play in online identification? How can different global scripts be included in the use of email and domain name system? Discussion around these three topics were the focus of the session.

While some reacted negatively to the position that people should have unique online identifiers, it was generally understood that personal online identifiers are necessary for variety of applications – for voting, financial transactions and social networks. Several types of online identifiers were mentioned as alternative to emails. Mobile telephone numbers were understood as a very practical identifier used in a number of services, including within the ‘three level authentication’ now increasingly present within major online services. Concerns were raised however, that in the least developed countries, several citizens may share one telephone number, while they might not share an email address. Digital IDs issued by some governments, on the other hand, commonly combine several types of information (such as name and birth) which makes them more reliable.

When it comes to using emails, as an online identifier, there were divergent opinions. Dr Mawaki Chango, Kara University, wondered whether emails can be held as reliable identifiers, bearing in mind that it is relatively easy to steal one’s email address or simply mislead using the email address of another person, which is one of the tools used for disseminating spam. An audience member invited all to discuss what other ‘bootstrapping mechanisms’ (data that can provide some sort of identity for the applications to run) can be used instead of email. Edmun Chung, DotAsia, underlined that email does not necessarily have to be the only identifier. Another comment from the audience was that we should discuss in detail which identifier could or should serve what purpose – emails can work for authentication with applications like Twitter, while a different identifier might be needed for connecting to tax payments, or voting.

Email addresses are already used beyond exchanging messages, as sort of online identifiers – many online applications and services use them. The problem emerges, however, when the cultural specificities – different scripts, in particular – are used within the online identifiers. Mr Leonid Todorov, General Manager, APTLD, mentioned that there are about 7000 languages in the world and that 90% of the population communicates in a language other than English. Some parts of the Internet are, however, not (yet) ready to support different scripts – especially the emails. According to Chung, this brings important policy implications if some email identifiers do not work in some apps (like for voting), which could reduce the ‘next billion’ that should be online – which directly links the issue to sustainable development goals and the importance of cultural aspects and connectivity.

Some participants reviewed the technical challenges of enabling the email address internationalisation (EAI) and Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs), suggesting that it is important to look into what level of internationalisation is feasible without disturbing the technical functionality of the Internet as it is today, and that it might be better to look into simpler identification mechanisms (such as the ITU’s E.164 numbering plan for the switched telephone network), and others that do not have the internationalisation consequences of a text string. Todorov, however, opted for additional efforts in making EAI work as it would make bringing the next billion users online easier if they could use their script.

Mr Mark Svancarek, Principal Program Manager at Microsoft, informed us that in phase one, Microsoft is enabling users to send and receive messages from EAI mailboxes (through Outlook, Active Directory and Exchange online i.e. Office365), while phase two will be using those addresses more comprehensively as identifiers in other services like Bing or OneDrive. Mr Marvin Woo from Coremail reported that in China, the EAI is a sort of a custom enterprise, while Ms Pensri Arunwatanamongkol,  .th Technical Contact at THNIC Foundation, informed us that as of this year, THNIC offers the Thai EAI service. ‘Perfect is the enemy of good’, Chong added, suggesting that we probably cannot make all systems read all scripts yet, and will not be able to for quite some time, but that we need to start from somewhere. 

by Vladimir Radunović