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Computing Thoughts
RSS: The Wrong Solution to a Broken Internet
by Bruce Eckel
September 18, 2007
Summary
RSS seems clever close-up, if you ignore the internet traffic increase issues. But if you look at the real problem, RSS is a workaround that just supports the existing problem: anonymity.

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When RSS first appeared, I dutifully wrote an RSS feed for the simple weblog system I had created for myself. Almost immediately, my hosting provider contacted me and said that my usage was too high. Everyone had turned their RSS readers up to "hammer" and were checking every second or sooner to see whether I had put up a new posting. Something I didn't do all that often, so every hour would probably have been just fine.

The result was that I punted, moved my weblog over to Artima, and let Bill handle it. He, I believe, uses third-party services to handle the RSS traffic. So this invention required several technologies and third-party businesses. To solve a problem that shouldn't have existed in the first place.

What are you, the consumer, trying to accomplish? You want to be notified when something happens. We have a well-known pattern for that problem. It's called publish-subscribe. The publisher keeps a pointer to the subscriber, and when something happens tells the subscriber about it. Maximally efficient.

Why doesn't it work? Because the internet is anonymous. People can behave badly because nobody knows who they really are, and enough people do behave badly that you can't risk giving out a pointer to yourself. So we don't. Instead, we need RSS where our readers are constantly, stupidly asking, "did it change yet?" "Did it change yet?" "Now has it changed?" "Now?"

This is a really dumb solution, but it's the only way we can retain our privacy, because if we give out anything that can lead back to us then someone will use it to annoy or trick us.

What's the real problem? Anonymity. The same as graffiti; you can get away with something if no one knows who you are, or doesn't care enough. But if someone sees you spray-painting a wall and they say "I see you John Smith! I know your mother and I'm going to tell her what you're doing!" suddenly you're responsible for your bad behavior. You're much less likely to do it.

The internet allows people to be anonymous. That's very often a good thing, because some groups (governments, it usually seems) can target people if they know who they are. So anonymity can be important, and we need special cases for people who actually need to be anonymous.

But in most situations we don't need anonymity, we need the opposite. I don't really want to hear from someone anonymously because it's unlikely -- except in the above situation -- that they are going to offer something of value to me, nor I to them. On weblog discussions, anonymity is worse than useless because it's the anonymous posters or (on this site) the ones that sneak in under an assumed identity that put up blog spam.

Phishing is an anonymous activity, as is spamming. Anybody miss those if they go away?

It's worse than that because we've all been forced to become anonymous so that the phishers and spammers can't get to us.

What's really aggravating about all this is that there appears to have been multiple solutions available for years. You can imagine that it wouldn't be that hard to say that I have to be able to know for sure that an email came from where it said it does (email headers already say where they come from, but the bad guys just use these to lie). A bigger problem is figuring out how to transition our systems to the new way of doing things, but mailer daemons are upgraded on a regular basis so this transition can surely be managed.

For many years there have been "digital identity" conferences. I have heard that there are something like 8 different approaches to solve this problem, and yet it all seems to just sit there.

Maybe someone can explain why nothing seems to be happening about this issue that, more than anything, plagues the internet and threatens to make it unusable. I mean, if you could choose one thing about the net to change, wouldn't it be "no more spam, phishing and general bad behavior that comes from anonymity?"

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2007 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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