I recently had a most fascinating experience: I received an email from myself. I had nothing to do with it, but its author had made a bona fide effort to impersonate my style, and some were convinced it was from me. Immediately after, my in box was filled with emails from other recipients of "my" email—employers, friends, and colleagues—begging to be removed from "my" discussion group. Some were amused. Others were seriously pissed off.
I suppose that I was lucky; the spam that went out under the name Ted Rall might have contained ethnic or racial slurs. Instead, its author merely set out to make me look like a fool—that "Ted Rall" was crowing about a piece the real Ted Rall had written for The Village Voice about Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman. As I soon discovered, the ersatz Rall was a New York-based illustrator who disagreed with my article in the Voice.
The email spamming had originated at a Website, so I visited its URL and found that it was a forum for email discussion groups. If you want to start an online chat about, for example, missing the solar eclipse, you can write, "Wow, am I bummed about missing that eclipse! Love and kisses, Brad Pitt," and send that missive off to as many email addresses as you want. While many of its recipients will guess that Brad isn't really emailing them about banal astronomical phenomena, many others won't. Their replies to the "Brad" doppelganger will automatically go to everybody else on the list you provided. If the real Pitt finds out, he can't undo the damage, since you're the "administrator" and as such only you know who's on the list of addressees. And the best thing is, the initial (in this case, fraudulent) email is anonymous. Your email address isn't revealed by the Website except under court order.
You already knew that cyberspace is lawless. What you may not know is that anyone with a grudge or too much time on their hands can smear your reputation with your relatives, your co-workers, and your friends. Many Americans consider themselves immune from cybershenanigans because they're never online, but you Luddites are in the worst position of all; if someone is out there ordering kiddie porn under your name, you won't know until the FBI shows up.
Even worse, the Internet is currently configured to protect anonymity over legitimacy. Countless Internet service providers allow their members to send email under anonymous handles. Remailer programs don't even bother assigning a fake name; your message simply emerges from the electronic mist. And discussion group Websites make it impossible for the victim of an impostor to contact recipients until days after the damage has already been done.
Fortunately, the cartoonist who pretended to be me wasn't very bright. My lawyer signed up to the fake discussion group only to be rejected by its "administrator"—who revealed himself in an email from an address that I immediately identified. I am now pursuing the culprit using the court system, both to make him stop and make him pay for turning my life upside down; but regardless of the legal outcome I'll never be able to totally undo the damage to my professional reputation. On the Internet, emails are cut, pasted, and forwarded with lightning speed. Events unfold in minutes; you can be ruined in a matter of hours.
Only a criminal needs an anonymous online identity. Just as the phone company requires documentation to verify that you are who you say you are to get a phone line, nobody should be able to get an email account without providing detailed name and home address information. Some civil libertarians may claim that opening the Net to the light of day would stifle free speech, but censorship isn't what's need here: You should be able to say whatever the hell you want, but only under your own name.
Until Congress wises up, however, you're on your own. Everyone who remains offline does so at the risk of their personal destruction. Everyone who cares about their reputation should run their name through the big search engines—Yahoo, Deja, HotBot, AltaVista—every few days, just to see what comes up. And when you catch them, don't let these not-so-merry pranksters off the hook; you owe it to yourself and your fellow citizens to prosecute these pathetic losers to the fullest extent of today's ridiculously lame laws.
Ted Rall, a cartoonist and columnist for Universal Press Syndicate, is the author of Revenge of the Latchkey Kids.