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.
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.