] Many people have a real problem with the apparently anonymous nature of the interweb. I say “apparently” because, of course, unless you work really hard at it and really understand how the internet works, and really understand how your PC works, and really plan it carefully, you’re not really anonymous in the proper sense of the word.
Our sense of anonymity is largely an illusion. Pretty much everything we do online, down to individual keystrokes and clicks, is recorded, stored in cookies and corporate databases, and connected to our identities, either explicitly through our user names, credit-card numbers and the IP addresses assigned to our computers, or implicitly through our searching, surfing and purchasing histories.
[From The Great Privacy Debate: The Dangers of Web Tracking – WSJ.com]
I’m surprised that politicians, in particular, who keep going on about how terrible internet anonymity is, don’t understand a little more about the dynamics of the problem. If they did, they would realise that anonymity isn’t what it seems.
You might think, after enough major stories about “IP addresses” hit the news wires, everyone in political life would be aware that “anonymity” on the Internet is limited.
But someone in Sen. Saxby Chambliss’ (R-GA) office didn’t get the memo. In the aftermath of this week’s failed vote on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, someone named “Jimmy” registered an account at the gay news blog Joe.My.God. just to say, “All Faggots must die.”
[From Outed! Senate staffers, anti-gay slurs, and IP addresses]
In the general case, you are not anonymous on the interweb, but economically-anonymous, which I propose to label “enonymous”, and that’s not the same thing at all. If you threaten to kill the President, you will be tracked down, and the state will spend the money it takes on it. But if you call Lily Allen a a hereditary celebrity and copyright hypocrite (not my own views, naturally) then it’s not worth the state’s money to track you down. If Lily wants to spend her own money on tracking you down and taking a civil action for libel, then fair enough, that’s the English way of limiting free speech. If the newspapers want to spend their own money on it, fine. For issues of great national interest, such as spurious death threats to the nation’s sweetheart, Cheryl Cole, The Sun can step in.
Yesterday The Sun traced the sender of a chilling anti-Cheryl message that blasted her over Zimbabwean Gamu’s TV exit. Wannabe rapper Sanussi Ngoy Ebonda, 20, admitted penning the sinister rant, which accused Cheryl of “da biggest mistake of your life” and included a threat to attack other girls sharing her name.
[From Cheryl Cole boosts security at mansion | The Sun |Showbiz|TV|X Factor]
So even though there’s precious little anonymity, should we allow enonymity to be the norm? There are plenty of people who think not, and they’re not all English libel lawyers. Surely common sense is on their side? Isn’t it wrong to let people hide behind pretend names?
Let’s focus on a specific and straightforward example. The comment pages on newspaper, magazine and other media web sites. Many such sites require registration but are still essentially enonymous. Is it right that enonymous commenters can say bad things about celebrities, politicians, business leaders? Would people be as horrible about public figures if they were forced to identify themselves?
Would the online debate among commenters be stifled by requiring commenters to sign their real names?
[From What did you say your name was? | Analysis & Opinion |]
The Chinese government certainly hope so.
China is considering measures to force all its 400m internet users to register their real names before making comments on the country’s myriad chat-rooms and discussion forums, in a further sign of tightening controls on freedom of speech.
[From China to force internet users to register real names – Telegraph]
We already know this doesn’t work, incidentally, because the Chinese already tried this for Internet cafes, supposedly to deal with the problem of young people spending too much time in virtual worlds. The only result was an instant, and profitable, black market in ID card numbers, whereby kids would get the ID numbers of people who weren’t going to play in cybercafes (eg, their grandparents) and used them to log in instead of using their own. There was an alignment of economic incentives here, because the cybercafes would not make money by turning people away.
Cafés that did not ask for identification often still had a registration book at the front desk, in which staff members were seen to write apparently random identification numbers and names during their free time.
[From HRIC | 中国人权]
Incidentally, another large and well-known country closely associated with our economic future (albeit a virtual one) has just abandoned plans to try and force Chinese-style real-name registration after a revolt by citizens (well, subscribers):
Blizzard has reversed a controversial decision that would have forced thousands of Starcraft and World of Warcraft (WoW) players to use their real names on the company’s online forums
[From Blizzard stands down over forum controversy | TG Daily]
I simply would not allow my kids to log in with their real names. I’m happy for them to log in using one of their multiple e-mail addresses. They’ve had pseudonymous e-mail addresses since they were old enough to go online. This isn’t just paranoia about people grooming children for sexual exploitation (the UK takes this kind of thing very seriously) and such like. There are lots of really good reasons for not wanting to use your identity in online debate and comment. I wrote once before about being shocked by some hate e-mails I received when I once posted some comments in a discussion about interest rates (“interest is the work of the devil”, “we know how you are” etc etc). Now, I still enjoy participating in online debates, but do so pseudonymously: my friends know who I am.
That, incidentally, may not be much of a protection, because the mapping of social graphs can soon locate you within a group of friends even if none of those friends disclose who you are. A determined third-party can learn very interesting things from those graphs and, unless everyone is anonymous or pseudonymous under certain conditions, figure out who you are.
Iran appears to be in two minds about whether to embrace or stymie technological progress. On the one hand, Twitter accounts helped the opposition mobilise demonstrations in the wake of last year’s contested presidential election… On the other hand, by monitoring Twitter traffic, Tehran was able to identify who was organising the protests.
[From FT.com / FT Magazine – Who controls the internet?]
As I’ve said before, in cyberspace no-one knows you’re a dog, but no-one knows you’re from the FBI either. Thus our government, the US government and many others are caught in two minds, just as the Iranians are. On the one hand, they are supposed to be in favour of free speech, but on the other hand, well, you know Danish cartoonists, criminals, child pornographers, terrorists, enemies of the state, dissidents, apostates etc.
Now, maybe you don’t care. You’re “not doing anything wrong.” Well, Hoder wasn’t doing anything wrong when he went to Israel and blogged about it in Farsi. But he’s serving 20 years in jail in Iran.
[From Emergent Chaos » Blog Archive » AT&T, Voice Encryption and Trust]
But back to online commenting in our democracy. It’s not a simple issue, and “common sense” is not a good guide to anything in the virtual world, but it is clearly the case that in that virtual world some people behave inappropriately. You only have to read The Guardian newspapers online “Comment is Free” or Guido Fawkes, the UK’s top political blog, to see how appalling, disgusting, racist, misogynist, anti-semitic and just plain thick the general public can be. I am one of those old-fashioned liberals who thinks that the response to bad free speech should be more free speech, not less. I think we should be wary about limiting the anonymity of people who comment online, even if we could think of a way of doing so.
The Nazareth District Court has upheld the right of the Walla Web portal to refuse to hand over the IP addresses of commenters accused of defaming a journalist.
“The good of online anonymity outweighs the bad, and it must be seen as a byproduct of freedom of speech and the right to privacy,” Judge Avraham Avraham wrote in his ruling last week.
The court also said the critical remarks concerning Yedioth Ahronoth reporter Israel Moskovitz, posted online in 2008, were unlikely to harm his reputation since they were poorly written and appeared only once, and readers were not likely to take them seriously.
[From Uphold talkbacker’s anonymity in defamation trial, court says – Haaretz – Israel News ]
Actually, for journalists to complain about online comments, criticism and even abuse is a tiny bit worrying, since their business depends on such.
It doesn’t take long to find articles on CNN that quote anonymous officials. For them to rage against “cowards” who won’t stand behind what they say, and then to regularly quote “anonymous” sources, seems pretty damn hypocritical. Phillips claims anonymity online is “very unfair.” Phillips also attacks the media for “giving anonymous bloggers credit or credibility.” But again, CNN quotes all kinds of anonymous sources all the time.
[From CNN Claims ‘Something Must Be Done’ About Anonymous Bloggers | Techdirt]
On balance, then, I think a free society not only permits certain kinds of anonymity but actually depends on them, because we need informed and honest public debate to function properly. This was well-put in the Washington Post recently.
For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating. Anonymity provides necessary protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude identifying themselves. And even belligerent anonymous comments often reflect genuine passion that should be heard.
[From Andrew Alexander – Online readers need a chance to comment, but not to abuse]
I couldn’t agree more. However, as the Post goes on to note, we have to recognise that people can be pretty horrible and we need a way to deal with that. Not banning anonymity, but managing the anonymousness (if there is such a word) in a better way.
The solution is in moderating — not limiting — comments. In a few months, The Post will implement a system that should help. It’s still being developed, but Straus said the broad outlines envision commenters being assigned to different “tiers” based on their past behavior and other factors. Those with a track record of staying within the guidelines, and those providing their real names, will likely be considered “trusted commenters.” Repeat violators or discourteous agitators will be grouped elsewhere or blocked outright. Comments of first-timers will be screened by a human being.
[From Andrew Alexander – Online readers need a chance to comment, but not to abuse]
This — in essence, baby steps toward a reputation economy — could be toughened up by using better identity infrastructure, but it’s not a bad place to start. But there are areas where the better infrastructure is more of a priority. Newspaper comments are one thing, but there are businesses that depend on online comments, and a good example is the burgeoning group review sector.