August 31, 2011 9:16 pm
It is right to curtail web anonymity
By John Gapper
One of the founding principles of the web – not only the technology but the
culture that has grown up with it – is that, as the New Yorker cartoon once
put it: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
The policy that people are free to interact online anonymously – or at least
using pseudonyms – is now under attack from social networking companies.
Both Faceboook and
which in June launched a competing service called
have cracked down on people trying to use pseudonyms rather than full
“The internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a
real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer,” Eric
Schmidt, Google’s chairman, said at the Edinburgh International Television
Festival last week. He was echoing Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s former
marketing director, who declared earlier this year that:
“anonymity on the
internet has to go away.”
These arguments are half right. Anonymity should not be banned in every
corner of the internet any more than it is in the physical world in
democracies – it would breach civil liberties. But there are good reasons to
discourage it. Most users would gain if anonymity were the exception rather
than the rule.
Mr Schmidt and Ms Zuckerberg (whose brother Mark, Facebook’s founder, has
attacked the use of multiple identities as displaying “a lack of ethics”)
have been criticised for their remarks. “The desire to clean up the web,
civilise it, and sterilise it pisses me off. I hate it,”
venture capitalist, wrote earlier this month.
The right to anonymity when voicing opinions helps to prevent victimisation.
Democracies permit citizens to vote anonymously and the US Supreme Court
declared in a 1995 case that: “Anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious,
fraudulent practice, but an honourable tradition of advocacy and dissent.
Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”
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
That is why it would be wrong, even if it were practical, to rewrite the
underlying technology of the internet to introduce what Mr Schmidt calls
“strong identity” and make every user easily identifiable and traceable. At
a stroke, that would curtail many valid forms of online interaction.
Governments and law enforcement agencies have other mechanisms to track down
criminals, whether they are
inciting riots on social
networks, sending pornography and spam, hacking, or stealing
money. There is no need to force everyone online to carry an identity card.
Yet the fact remains that, as Ms Zuckerberg put it: “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
The prevalence of anonymity in online debates has helped to spawn a culture
of aggression. Not only are many sites plagued by “trolls” and “flame wars”
between rivals but anonymity can be abused to bully others and be
Some of this behaviour would still occur if people had to use their own
names. The advantage of web self-expression – the broadening of civic
engagement – comes with the drawback of incivility: it is hard to achieve
one without the other. But anonymity increases the incentives to behave
The effect can be to diminish participation rather than increase it – amid
so much noise it is harder to know what is valuable. Many people are put off
by the atmosphere and moderate voices are thus crowded out by extreme ones.
This is not merely an aesthetic judgement about how robust and plainspoken
online debate ought to be. Anonymity, whether in mainstream media outlets or
on the web, also makes it harder to know about other people’s conflicts of
interest and how seriously their views should be taken.
These problems are partially mitigated by pseudonymity instead of complete
anonymity – the use of avatars and pseudonyms so that sites can identify and
weed out persistent mischief-makers and users gain a sense of others’
personalities. But it does not solve them.
So it is welcome that companies such as Facebook and Google are taking a
stance on anonymity. They have self-interested reasons to do so, since the
more data their users give them, the more valuable their networks become to
advertisers, but it is a good idea nonetheless.
Despite the indignation of some Google Plus users at being ejected,
Google has every right
to set its own rules – those who dislike them can go elsewhere.
The fact that “strong identity” should not be embedded into the fabric of
the internet need not prevent individual enterprises from trying to
For some companies, that means banning anonymity. Others could encourage
users to disclose their full identities by rewarding them for doing so. Jeff
Jarvis, a journalism professor, has argued for favouring “the comments of
people who have the courage to stand behind their words with their names.”
Those that introduce such incentives will hopefully cultivate an engaged and
intelligent base of users and attract people alienated by the abuse of
anonymity elsewhere. That is not the curtailment of freedom: it is the
expression of it.