Anonymity on the web has been called both a blessing and a curse. Online alter-egos allow people an unprecedented freedom to communicate their deepest hopes or explore alternate activities or pastimes without risk to their real lives or reputations. It can also empower our worst human proclivities, setting loose trolls, scams and, in some cases, serious criminal activity.
Either way, it has been a fundamental facet of online life since the Internet’s inception. And that rankles some of the technorati, people like Randi Zuckerberg. Mark’s sister and marketing director of Facebook, she took aim at the topic in a social media panel discussion hosted by Marie Claire:
“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”
It’s true that accountability is lacking in a virtual universe where anyone can hide behind a fake name. We live in an age marked by story after story about social lodging sites being used by unchecked criminals to rob homes, children being targeted by online assailants, and hacker groups covertly breaching multinationals’ security (and laying users’ data bare to the world). The incidences certainly seem to be mounting. And the arbiters of today’s internet culture have had enough.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that a war is being waged to unmask the web.
You know something’s going on when boutique industries start cropping up, pinpointing potential cashola. Sites like Tru.ly and Trufina are offering online identity checks for transactions and Social Intelligence has grabbed a lot of headlines for its social media background checks. (Before you think anyone with the slightest bit of tech-savvy could easily skirt this, you may be interested in seeing what happened when a Gizmodo editor went through the check recently. Long story short: He failed.)
Speaking of social networks, Facebook is infamously militant about people using real names, and now so is Google+. (In the case of the latter, however, it might be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario: Just ask Facebook’s Product Director Blake Ross. He’d signed up using his real name, but still just got booted out for his trouble.)
The adult industry’s another example. They are extremely concerned about this issue, since it would obviously cripple them if users’ real identities were attached to their activities. Now, what adults do in the (pseudo-) privacy of their homes may be up to them, but, say lawmakers, think of the children! And so they passed a bill called Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011. This piece of legislation is controversial, not because it protects kids — who in their right mind would argue against that? — but because, if it passes into law, it would require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to track identity, billing and network data on customers for at least 18 months. And that would cover all people, not just the low-lifes who dig child porn. This is why the ACLU and others are fighting this bill. It’s not a matter of anonymity, but of privacy.
This isn’t a simple black-and-white, right-or-wrong scenario. There are as many arguments to keep anonymity as there are to banish it — and some of them have pretty chilling factors. I’m talking about political dissidents, battered women in hiding, and existing (or even potential) stalking victims, as well as others whose survival depends on remaining under the radar. This has even inspired a grassroots movement to preserve people’s right to use pseudonyms online.
This can be disconcerting for the general public as well. Already, our homes, cars, phones, IP addresses and other location or identifying data is being imaged or tracked. Consider this scenario: You’re on the street and someone takes a liking to you. They snap your picture, and using that, conduct a facial recognition-search with it (which is actually pretty simple to do). Once they have your name, they can dig up your address, model of car you drive, and your phone number, as well as see what types of accounts or memberships you have, to gain intel on your activities.
I’d love to say that this is a far-fetched scenario, but it’s actually not. In fact, it’s pretty easy and already possible now. So what could stripping away anonymity even more do?
Maybe the better question is, even if everyone’s on board with total transparency, would it really be all it’s cracked up to be in the end? After all, using her real name didn’t stop London Eley from trying to hire a hitman on Facebook. Or Jason Valdez. Aided by loved ones informing him of police movements, he described his police standoff from a motel room on the site. And looking at less-dramatic cases like Blake Ross’s, you’ve got to wonder if it will just wind up causing more trouble than it solves.
Where do you stand on this? Do you use aliases or fake names with your online accounts? Or are you unconcerned about it and use your real name? And would you be okay with it if a blanket mandate became the norm, with all account services enforcing real-name authentication or other transparency policies? Tell us whether or not you agree with Ms. Zuckerberg that “anonymity on the Internet has to go away.”