In Defense of Internet Anonymity -- Again: Page 2

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?
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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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Tags: Facebook, security, privacy, google+

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