In Defense of Internet Anonymity -- Again

Tuesday Aug 2nd 2011 by Bruce Byfield

In contrast with the Linux community's emphasis on user's rights, Facebook, Google+ and many companies work to limit the protection of user anonymity. Who’s right?

This summer, one of the hottest issues in technology is online anonymity. Specifically, do users have a right to hide their identity behind pseudonyms, or should they be required to use a real name? The answer is especially important to free and open source software supporters – the Linux community – for whom the rights of users are central issues.

The issues that surround anonymity are as old as the Internet. In fact, in the early 1990s, nicknames were part of the fun of being online -- an attitude that persists today in IRC and Instant Messaging, as well as on some sites and mailing lists.

However, at least two recent events have revived the old issues. To start with, after lengthy debate, the House Judiciary Committee recently approved bill H.R. 1981, which requires Internet service providers to keep a record of their customer's activities for twelve months.

Allegedly a measure against child pornography, this bill may be impractical simply because of the necessary data storage required. But the bill has received bi-partisan criticism largely as an invasion of privacy. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes, the collection of such information as users' IP addresses "can be used to identify who visited particular websites or posted particular content online--threatening your right to privately browse the web and to speak and read anonymously when you're online."

A second flashpoint is the anti-pseudonym policy of the new social networking site Google+. Part of the problem is that Google appears to have been caught by surprise on the issue, and has applied its terms of service inconsistently, banning some users of pseudonyms from all Google services, and restricting others to read only access. There are even rumors that Google is preventing its employees from speaking on the matter, and that a massive internal debate is happening inside Google.

But equally important is the fact that Google+ is applying the policy so strictly that even long established pseudonyms are rejected, as well as any names that are judged by Google employees to be false. Even the common practice among Chinese and other nationals of assuming an unofficial English name seems to have been rejected by Google in some instances.

At any rate, Google's slowness -- perhaps reluctance -- to respond to such problems has done much to reduce the fascination with the new Google+.

Such issues urgently need to be discussed as modern society continues to struggle with the idea of how traditional rights and freedoms apply online -- especially since the rush to limit or abolish anonymity has little justification and ignores the numerous cases in which using a pseudonym may be justifiable. Moreover, at least in the United States, anti-anonymity policies ignore already established legal precedents.

The case against anonymity

Some of the most prominent opponents of anonymity are corporations that have collected personal data about millions of users.

Both Facebook and Google+, for instance, have terms of service that forbid the use of pseudonyms.

Recently, Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook's marketing director, has been quoted as saying on a panel discussion that "anonymity on the Internet has to go away," while last year, Google's CEO Eric Schmidt said that "it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you."

How are such positions justified? One of the most common arguments against anonymity is that it encourages unethical behavior, if not crime. This is the position that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, assumes when he says, "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. . . . Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Schmidt is even blunter, saying that "privacy is not the same thing as anonymity" and opposing a right to privacy against a right to anonymity or crime. Schmidt goes so far as to say that "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

Such comments create an either-or opposition. However, the truth is, there is an entire range of reasons for using a pseudonym.

Some women or minorities may use a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously, or to avoid prejudice. Other people may assume a name to avoid harassment or discrimination, or because their terms of employment prohibit Internet participation. Professional artists may use another name for work that is radically different from what they are known for. The famous may do so for obscurity. Whistleblowers may need protection when they reveal corporate or governmental wrong-doing.

All of these reasons are both commonplace and unobjectionable, and some are praiseworthy. In fact, despite its real names policy, Facebook implicitly recognized that anonymity is sometimes desirable when it allowed Wael Ghonim to use a pseudonym in his opposition against the Egyptian government.

Another argument is that insisting on real names encourages online politeness. This is the position that Randi Zuckerberg takes when she suggests, that "People behave a lot better when they have their real names down . . . people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors." The same assumption is made by Slashdot when it assigns the name "Anonymous Coward" to comments made without a login.

At first, this line of reasoning seems believable. The worst comments on any site are often made by those who post anonymously or with obvious pseudonyms.

Yet it does not follow that outlawing pseudonyms results in politeness. Facebook's insistence on real names does little to reduce sexism, racism, abuse, or any other objectionable behavior -- largely because the majority of users post as though they were using instant messaging rather than posting comments to hundreds.

Search on "Facebook" plus any of these terms, and you will find millions of comments and complaints. Probably, though, you won't need to, because the chance are that you have encountered all these forms of incivility if you have spent more than a few minutes on Facebook whatsoever.

The use of real names may be part of Mark Zuckerberg's radical transparency, but, by the example of his own site, it fails miserably to improve how people interact with each other.

Yet even if the arguments against anonymity were valid, a larger problem is that enforcing a real name policy is impossible for a very simple reason: Inventing a realistic pseudonym is trivial, because checking everybody who signs up would be too inconvenient for both users and an online service.

Given the number of applications they process each day, no online service is going to ask each user for legal identification, let alone a signed public encryption key, such as that required by new maintainers in the Debian Project. Either users would go elsewhere, or the work of checking applications would be too costly and time-consuming.

The one legitimate reason I have ever heard for a policy against anonymity is Schmidt's contention that, if companies don't find their own solution, "governments will demand it." Considering the approval of H.R. 1981 in the United States, Schmidt's remark of a year ago now seems prophetic.

Yet when you consider all the legitimate reasons for using a pseudonym, the threat of government intervention seems more a reason to oppose anti-anonymity policies than to acquiesce in them. Although pseudonyms can be sometimes misused, the risk of anti-anonymity policies seems even greater from the perspective of consumers or of social rights.

Anonymity and the Law

However, the strongest reason to oppose anti-anonymity may be that they are illegal. From most of the discussion around the issues, you might imagine that anonymity and pseudonyms were uncharted legal territory. Yet, when you investigate, far from outlawing anonymity, most industrial nations protect it.

For instance, in the United States, the case McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm'n (93-986), 514 U.S. 334 (1995) establishes that an anonymous person does not waive their civil rights. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens states:

"Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation – and their ideas from suppression – at the hand of an intolerant society. The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse."

In the United States, you do not even need to officially register an alias, although many jurisdictions allow you to do so. Generally you can use whichever name you want for business, legal, or social purposes. The only exceptions are the usual ones: a so-called common law name change cannot be used for criminal purposes, including hate crimes, or to cause deliberate confusion between your name and a celebrity.

Most other countries have similar laws -- although, as in the United States, anonymity has frequently come under attack by lawmakers.

Yet, no matter what you think of anonymity, in acting to limit it, corporations like Google and Facebook may be acting illegally. If that is so, why is this discussion taking place again?

Not only are the arguments against anonymity disproved by the everyday evidence of anybody's online experience, but the questions about it have been settled years ago. The fact that the discussion has shifted online changes nothing.

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