We don’t know whether we want real names or not
[Dave Birch] There’s an ongoing, and familiar, debate in progress about people calling each other—and themselves—names online. You only have to spend a few minutes looking at the comments on the The Daily Mail or in the Guardian’s Comment is Free to see that people can be very mean to each other online where there identities are hidden. Not as mean to each other as they are offline, where identities are known, but mean nonetheless.
Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced.
I’m sure this is true. But I’m also sure that in some cases you need sort-of-anonymity in order to get valuable input.
People’s faces, real names and brief biographies (“John Doe from Lexington”) are placed next to their public comments, to establish a baseline of responsibility.
Posting the real name and face of a nurse next to her comment about poor hygiene standards in a hospital, for example, is hardly likely to make the discourse better. I think we shouldn’t confuse the issue about strategies to improve the quality of online comment and debate on newspaper websites (always going to be an uphill struggle, frankly, if you are going to allow the public access to them) with the bigger picture about online anonymity. This has hit the headlines again because of the fuss about Google+‘s “real names” policy and Eric Schimidt’s comments about. Even the FT has been discussing it.
The web equivalent of anonymous pamphlets – taking to Twitter or to microblogs in China and in Arab countries to demand accountability or freedom from undemocratic governments – is a vital use of the internet. If everyone not only had to be identified but could be traced by security services, freedom of expression would suffer.
Well… yes. But that’s an argument that proves that it isn’t right to curtail web anonymity. And in any case, this is nothing to do with Eric Schmidt’s comments on the subject. He was arguing that Google wants to know your real name so that it can market to you, sell your details to advertisers and so forth. Right now, when I have to log in to a double-glazing company web site to get a quote, I always give a made-up name, made-up date of birth and so forth. I don’t want someone from the double-glazing company website on my doorstep when I get home. But under Eric’s plan, there would be no hiding from the marketeers.
there are people who do really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out
I don’t think he means double-glazing salesmen, but people who won’t reveal personal data.
So if we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them, we could give them things, we could you know bill them, you know we could have credit cards and so forth and so on
Quite. He is admirably, and commendably, honest and transparent. This isn’t about politics, or rights, or freedom. It’s about advertising. Now, let’s be clear. I am not anti-commercial. Far from it. I understand that people need to sell me stuff. In fact, more than that, I want people to sell me stuff. I like it when people sell me stuff I want. When Amazon recommends a great book to me, I love them for it. But, in the general case, does Amazon need to know whether I am real person, one persona of a real person, a dorm room or a small business or a married couple? It doesn’t: it looks at what JohnDoe1776 buys and makes recommendations. That’s it.
Saying that he’s been thinking about identity for 20 years, Schmidt calls it a “hard problem”: “The Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person”, he says.
Yes, it would. But that’s not an argument for anonymity or not-anonymity. As I have posted repeatedly over several years, it is better understood as an argument about credentials, authenticated attributes and the separate-but-related binding of virtual identities to digital identities and digital identities to RWLEs (Real World Legal Entities—I wish I could think of another, better title).
An anonymous virtual identity with the credentials IS_A_PERSON and IS_OVER_18 would serve most people for most purposes most of the time
It would also make identity theft much harder: every time Google or Facebook force you to use your real name, that makes it more likely that your real name will be stolen or used inappropriately. It’s the same argument I always use about putting names on chip and PIN cards - the only people who benefit from this are thieves who steal the cards. Eric is certainly correct when says it’s a hard problem though.
The goal to “protect anonymity of good people, but not allow anonymity of bad people” sounds really hard to implement: How do you separate “good” from “bad” people?
Well put. We (the public) have no idea what we want. We want anonymity for Syrian dissidents but not for pedophiles. We want anonymity for hospital nurses blowing the whistle on incompetent surgeons but not for looters. We want anonymity for celebrities in some circumstances but not others. Most of all, and most paradoxically, we want the authorities to spy on other people but not on us. Once you create the ability to simply, easily and inexpensively track people, then I’m afraid the genie is out of the bottle.
But if there was an Internet Driving License that you had to use to log in to web sites, that would almost certainly make the situation far worse, since these websites would now know exactly who you are, and this information would then be freely obtained by perverts, the secret police, News International or whoever else wants to pry.
I don’t know what the answer is. I take part in activities such as the Cabinet Office’s Identity Assurance Privacy and Consumer Group and the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation’s Research Fellowshop to try and learn as much as possible about the issues and to try to help our clients make informed decision about identity strategy, but I can’t help but feel we are some way from a solution. What I am certain of, though, is that we should be formulating national policy and not allowing corporates to bypass proper public debate and discussion on the topic.
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