Monday, 3 December 2007

Two Stones, One Bird?


Because most web sites with anything remotely important on them seem to require log-in codes, I keep many different usernames and passwords in my head. Apparently, the average person uses 12 (Independent Extra, 21.11.07, p.8). That's nothing compared to the many phone numbers that we used to remember before we began relying on the directory in our mobile phones and laptops, or Skype. But it hardly aids freedom of movement around the web.

To ease my passage, so to speak, the (worryingly named) Open ID programme would have me replace all my passcodes with a single ID. It would sit in a database somewhere to be checked when I access each participating web site.

Cue another standards battle, and Round 10 between Google, Microsoft et al.

But the people working on the semantic web would say that I shouldn't have to move around the web at all. Their goal is making information "understandable by computers, so that they can perform more of the tedious work involved in finding, sharing and combining information on the web". As I recall the explanation of Dr Nick Gibbins (School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton) at the SCL's Law 2.0 event in September, the key issues are trust and provenance in the information which the computers are being made to understand. Both vary according to the source, time and context in which the information is given, as well as the content itself. You trust Prof Lillian Edwards' view of privacy law, but not her tips on car repair. But rather than drawing on a single ID in a single (hackable) repository somewhere, the computers would rely on a whole range of circumstantial evidence to confirm that the data in question is likely to be true and relevant to you - or in a log-in scenario, that the person whose computer is trying to gain access to a database is you.

Cue another massive battle over standards, but also over ontologies, taxonomies and other elements of the semantic web that are worthy of such top-draw words.

I guess that Open ID may be a stepping stone along the way to the semantic web, in which case we should get on with it. But that does seem like two stones for the one bird. Whereas the semantic web promises convenience without humans having to do all the moving around - so two birds with one stone.

I know which sounds better.
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