Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Anonymity and the "Real-Name Policy" Debate

-- By AriGlatt - 01 May 2015

Pseudonymity and the Internet

The Nymwars

While anonymity was not something invented with the internet, the internet has offered new opportunities for anonymous and pseudonymous communications. Billions of users can now effortlessly engage online in political advocacy, comment on social media sites, and perform commercial transactions without disclosing their identities.

Anonymity on the internet is rarely 100 % undetectable. There is normally the possibility of finding the originator, especially if a person uses the same method to gain anonymity multiple times. Notwithstanding this, internet culture has long encouraged the use of "handles" or "user names," pseudonyms that may or may not be tied to a person’s offline identity. Interfaces on the web therefore must decide how their communities will operate. Should a user be allowed to contribute using a pseudonym or do they first need to supply their real identity? This conflict over whether policies should mandate users of internet services to identify themselves using legal names has become to be known as Nymwars. (A neologism, created by blending the words "pseudonym" and "wars.")

While this debate of Nymwars is not a new discussion, the issue gained popular media attention when in July 2011 Google+ began enforcing its “real name only policy” by suspending the accounts of users it felt were not following the policy. The public outcry settled down when in July 2014 Google announced that it was ending the policy. The resulting discussions have raised many issues regarding public and private identity, cultural sensitivity, the role of social media in modern discourse, and lastly, socially unacceptable behavior by online anonymous users.

Regardless of how Google or other companies construct media platforms, the question remains: Should the cloak of anonymity online be allowed or disallowed, encouraged or discouraged?

The Online Disinhibition Effect and Other Negative Effects of Allowing Anonymity:

There have been many studied negative effects of anonymity on the web. Perhaps one of the most serious consequences is the online disinhibition effect which is a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the internet. The online disinhibition effect can be found in the advent of cyberbullying in recent years. The prevalence of cyberbullying is often attributed to relative internet anonymity, due to the fact that potential offenders are able to mask their identities and prevent themselves from being caught. The online disinhibition effect compounds this and reduces the accountability the cyberbully perceives to have for their actions, thereby removing the deterrent of the impact their actions might otherwise have on their reputation.

Likewise, the online disinhibition effect might also be attributable to the contentious state of the comment sections on many online blogs, and on sites like YouTube. Studies have shown that large portions of social news site comments contain profanity and/or insults and personal attacks exaggerations, outright lies, threats of violence, and blatant racism.

The Mischaracterization of the Issue

While these arguments are not entirely without merit, they straw-man and miscompute the concern. It is not incumbent upon strict real-name policy advocates to show that policies requiring the use of real names have an upside. It is incumbent upon them to demonstrate that the benefits outweigh some very serious drawbacks of disallowing pseudonymity. Drawbacks that can be found at a Wikionline which attempts to highlight and demonstrate the people who are harmed by a real names policy.

The Longstanding Tradition of Anonymity

Case law is a proponent of anonymity as well. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized rights to speak anonymously derived from the First Amendment. See also Talley v. California 362 U.S. 60 (1960)and Lipinski, To Speak Or Not To Speak (2002).

As Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens put forth in deciding McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n 514 U.S. 334, 357 (1995) , "Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular . . . political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse."

Just as advocates against anonymity argue that forcing people to use identifying names can have formidable consequences, demanding the use of identifying names can have formidable effects, one of which can be excluding from the conversation anyone who fears retribution for imparting their views. While one added value of requiring real names might be increased "civility" of the conversation, it is most certainly to the detriment of diversity and free speech.

The Online Disinhibition Effect as a Case for Anonymity

The same online disinhibition effect can even be used to argue for anonymity. It can allow people to reveal personal history and feelings without fear of later embarrassment. This is beneficial when discussing very private matters, or unpopular subjects or expressing an outlawed political views or revealing facts that may put someone in physical, financial, or legal danger. It is well within the rights of any company, Google, Facebook, or otherwise, to create policies as they see fit for their services. But it is imprudent to suggest that real name policies create greater potential for civility, when they only do so at the expense of diversity and free expression. Indeed, a shift toward crafting policies requiring real names will have a deterring effect on online free expression.


The solution does not lie in a real name policy due to all of the drawbacks. But rather it lies elsewhere. Some ways that people have attempted to help allow pseudonymity is by using automated insult and profanity detection systems. Many victims of anonymous cyberbullying have also turned to legislation and now all 50 states have enacted stalking, bullying or harassment laws that explicitly include electronic forms of communication. But the magnitudes of people participating in online communication, have left us unable to detect, prevent, or remove all inappropriate content. The problems discussed and their attempted answers have not been solved because they are complex and not susceptible either to quick or easy technological fixes or hard to enforce policy solutions. Perhaps the solutions should be addressing why the improper content is contributed in the first place. A more direct, if slower, solution might be to address the underlying social causes of harassment. All content providers, social networking platforms and community sites should do their part to create a civil culture within them, conceivably by setting the tone and having human moderators actively participate in order to counteract the online disinhibition effect.

The Nymwars does not have a final victor. Anonymous communication is a key aspect of the Internet and free expression. Policies that seek to shape it should reflect a balance among the competing interests in order to utilize the benefits and reduce the drawbacks, of both real names and anonymity.


Webs Webs

r3 - 26 Jun 2015 - 19:46:26 - MarkDrake
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