Internet anonymity encourages people to misbehave

Good reasons for pseudonymity - and against a real name requirement

This is a guest post by Jillian C. York. She is Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

There are thousands of reasons why someone might want to use a name other than their maiden name. Some people worry that their lives or livelihoods will be threatened, or that they will suffer political or economic disadvantages. Others want to avoid discrimination or simply choose a name that is easier to remember or spell.

The reasons for pseudonymity multiply online. For a long time, the network culture has encouraged people to get nicknames or usernames. These are pseudonyms that are sometimes related and sometimes unrelated to the real person and the offline identity. Longtime internet users have had the same nicknames for twenty years.

Discourses need pseudonyms

Pseudonyms have played an important role in history too, and not just in the literature of George Eliot and Mark Twain. For example, the pseudonym “Publius” was used explicitly politically to convince the population of the American constitution in the Federalist Papers (a series of articles in New York newspapers). And also in England in the 18th century a “Junius” intervened in the political debate in the Public Advertiser. So people have always contributed heavily to political discourse under pseudonyms - and they still do it today.

Those who advocate real names in social networks have put forward a number of arguments: real names would improve user behavior and promote a more civil network, real names would help against stalking and harassment and make the perpetrators easier to grasp, and they would also be used beforehand protect that law enforcement officers or authorities could snoop under false names; and in general, the real name makes people responsible for their actions on the net.

These arguments cannot be dismissed entirely, but they do not get to the heart of the problem. Because the strict real name advocates do not have to show that insisting on the use of real names has an advantage. On the contrary: you have to show that these advantages outweigh the serious and major disadvantages.

Real names - dangerous for activists

If you remember, for example, Wael Ghonim, the now well-known Egyptian whose Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” inspired thousands of people to support the revolt in January. Although the site only went online in the summer of 2010 - shortly after Khaled Said's death at the hands of the police - it really took off at the end of 2010. However, in November 2010, Facebook took the site offline after someone had reported there that the administrator of the site was using a pseudonym. It was only through the good relationships of Google employee Wael Ghonim and the opportunity to contact Facebook employees that the site was able to be brought back online. The trick was that someone else was entered as the administrator of the site with their real name.

This case is rather unusual: not everyone has such good relationships as Wael Ghonim and can use them. We don't know how many people and their pages have been forgotten by the Facebook policy because they did not know how to deal with an account deactivation. In Ghonim's case, using his real name could have got him into serious trouble. While pseudonymity does not provide any guarantees, it makes it much more difficult for authorities to identify activists.

Protection against harassment and harassment

So there are innumerable reasons why a person feels safer if they sign up under a name other than their birth name. For example, teenagers who are members of the LGBT community are regularly subjected to harassment and harassment. They therefore prefer to be online under a pseudonym. It is similar to people whose (spouse) partner z. B. work in government or are public figures. They want to get on with their life and lifestyle and feel more comfortable when they can do that online by another name without being directly identified. Another example are victims of domestic violence and rape who do not want to be found by the perpetrator. You can protect yourself better with an alternative name, a pseudonym. In addition, all people with unpopular, deviant and dissenting political attitudes have the opportunity to protect their lives and livelihoods by registering with a pseudonym.

The US Supreme Court expressed it in the McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n 514 U.S. 334, 357 (1995) read:

Anomymy is a shield against the tyranny of the majority. It illustrates the meaning of the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular people from retaliation, to protect their ideas from oppression and from the actions of an intolerant society. The right to remain anonymous can only be violated if it protects fraudulent behavior. But political speech, by its very nature, sometimes has unpleasant consequences, and in general our society places greater weight on the value of free speech than the risk of its abuse.

Just as the use of real names can have real consequences, so the mandatory use of them can exclude anyone from communication who faces retaliation or harm for their (differing) views. While one advantage of the real name requirement could perhaps be more civil behavior on the Internet, it is certain that the real name requirement comes at the expense of diversity of opinion.

The bloggers of Geek Feminism have compiled a long list of people and groups and the potential dangers for them through a real name requirement in a wiki. Many of the reasons on this list advocate using a pseudonym for security reasons, but there are also other important reasons why someone might want to use a pseudonym.

Take the example of Michael Anti, the Chinese journalist whose real name is Jing Zhao. Anti was kicked off Facebook in January 2011, presumably because someone reported using a name other than his maiden name. Although he had already published in the New York Times under the pseudonym "Michael Anti" for ten years, Facebook insisted on strict adherence to its real name policy.

Pseudonyms are essential for freedom of expression and diversity

Nevertheless, these strategies, which require real names, are almost impossible to implement completely, and as various examples have shown, the implementation leads to people who are known or have many enemies - this is also a result of community reporting - in the The focus of such measures is advised.

It is of course the right of companies like Google, Facebook or whoever to develop strategies and principles that they think will better suit their services. But it is short-sighted to say that the real name requirement leads to a more civil network when the price for it is diversity and freedom of expression. Because in fact, the real name requirement has a chilling effect on free speech and freedom of expression on the Internet.

This is an abridged version of an article by Jillian York from 2011. The arguments and the importance of pseudonymity have not changed since then. The article is under CC-BY.

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Guest Post

Guest contributions are contributions from people who do not belong to the netzpolitik.org editorial team. Sometimes we approach authors and publishers to ask them about guest contributions, sometimes the authors approach us. Guest contributions do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors.
Published 07/20/2016 at 11:47 am