The Case For Web Anonymity

It used to be that nobody on the Internet knew you were a dog. Nowadays the problem is they just might.

The launch of Google’s social network Google+ is taking a stand with its real name policy. After many (including a former Google employee’s) Google+ accounts were suspended by Google and after Randi Zuckerberg made some sweeping statements about getting rid of online anonymity all together, people have really gotten worked up about online anonymity and pseudonymity.

Randi Zuckerberg and Google execs aren’t the only ones ganging up on anonymity. The stance that many publishers take against anonymity falls in line with Randi’s argument about accountability and online behavior. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and The Observer’s Tim Adams both focus their arguments on the perils of anonymity in commenting sections of websites and how allowing people to hide behind an anonymous name tag leads to trolls polluting sites with pretty unsavory stuff. Adams takes his point further, calling for real names in all online commenting situations. CEO of Y&R (the 88-year-old advertising agency) David Sable shared similar sentiments to Adams in a recent interview with Digiday. Sable said, “The guy who posts that somebody is a jerk or gives false information doesn’t deserve the ability to post. …There’s a credibility in knowing who you are that adds value to the conversation. It makes me more comfortable answering. There’s an accountability in putting out who you are.”

This is a corporate charade. Gigantic companies like Google and Facebook are in the business of scooping up lots of data about people and then selling advertising based on that data. The more accurate the data, the more value. As Liz Gannes of AllThingsD puts it, “The more we condense our online selves into a single person, the more reliable, accountable and monetizable our Web experiences can be.”

The notion that forcing people to use their real names all of the time will get rid of bad online behavior is just naive. Facebook has had a real name policy since its inception, and, as we all know, that certainly hasn’t made Facebook the exemplar of online civility.  What is also glaringly obvious is that there are many cases in which online anonymity or pseudonymity is vital, whether it is for reasons related to political beliefs, sexual identity, mental and physical health, or personal privacy in general, the list goes on. As Jyri Engeström, founder and CEO of Ditto posted on his Google+ page:

A service that aims to become the default arena for online social exchange globally should allow pseudonymity (which is really what we’re talking about when we talk about anonymity) and, in some cases, even encourage it. No one should be booted off the system just because they are using a made up name. It’s the only way members of an oppressed community can get away with breaking the social conventions that keep their spirits nailed to the floor.

It’s a matter of personal privacy, safety and freedom of speech. Allowing online anonymity does not mean that all of the Web will turn into 4chan, just like enforcing real name policies will not make the Web a place of complete civility. It just means that people who need to be protected for having beliefs that challenge the status quo or simply for reasons of personal privacy can still participate in online communication.

Just because Facebook and Google want you to have a single, verified, unified, trackable online self, doesn’t mean you have to. As private companies, they can choose to enforce these restrictive policies, and we can just as easily choose not to use their services. Maybe that would make them rethink real-name policies and consider more reasonable methods of making users accountable without compromising their online experiences — and, in some cases, their freedom.

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