The Debate Over Online Anonymity

The last time Schleswig-Holstein was much in the news was in the 19th century when it was the center of a three-way tussle between Denmark, Prussia, and Austria, a diplomatic knot so complex that the British statesman Lord Palmerston said of it "The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it."

But this northernmost German state came back into the news when Thilo Weichert, the state's privacy commissioner, raised an issue of such complexity that it will make the first Schleswig-Holstein question look like a dot-to-dot coloring book in comparison.

This month Mr. Weigert wrote to Facebook FB -0.83%threatening to fine the social media company for failing to allow the state's citizens to use their service anonymously or pseudonymously, in breach of German law.

Facebook rejects Mr. Weigert's ruling, saying "We believe the orders are without merit, a waste of German taxpayers' money and we will fight it vigorously." But this dispute is more than simply another "European country angry at big U.S. company" story. This cuts right to the heart of a long-standing Internet debate—do we have the right to be anonymous online?

This has serious consequences in the real world. The Irish parliament is investigating the role of social media in a public debate following the suicide of Irish politician Shane McEntee after a campaign of abuse, some of it on social media. Furthermore, a recent study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that vituperative comments on science articles affected how people perceived the validity of the science. The less civil the accompanying comments, the more risk readers attributed to the research, a finding that has implications for the public understanding of science.

Richard Allan, Director of Policy, Europe for Facebook rigorously defends the company's insistence on real names, real identities. The company says the real name policy has safety implications as well as encouraging civil discourse. "The reason we take the line we do is this is a core part of what defines the community we have built," he said. "Ours is intended to replicate real life and in real life you don't lie to people about who you are, and then have a successful social interaction with them.

"Our service is about people making connections with other people and then sharing with them. If you live in a town or village and you meet someone, you introduce yourselves to each other. It wouldn't be a very effective, or happy, or well-functioning community if you started to give a different name to every person you met in the street."

However, Simon Davies, a former senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and founder of the Privacy International watchdog, said Facebook's characterization lacked the subtlety of real-world interactions. "In the real world there are countless circumstances where we only know a person by their pseudonym or by their public identity," he said. "We develop levels of socialization. If it [Facebook] wants a true granularity of social interactions it will allow them to have those pseudonyms because that is exactly what people do in, say, the pub. There are people we only know by their nicknames. We can still have real social interaction with them."

It depends on what we want, Mr. Davies said. "You have to separate out what is the useful mechanism for good social networking from a mechanism for secure social networking. These are not the same thing."

"If you are looking at reckless individuals who have no accountability or responsibility, who use multiple identities essentially to create chaos, then you are looking at a completely different frame of reference. That has very little to do with the question of the sensible use of pseudonyms."

Brooke Magnanti, who now writes for London's Daily Telegraph, is a former call girl who wrote a blog of her life as a prostitute under the pseudonym Belle de Jour. She says the loss of a right to anonymity far outweighs whatever potential harm abusers may cause. In the early 1660s, in the reign of England's King Charles II, "a printer called John Twyn was put to death for refusing to name the anonymous author of a piece that was critical of [the king]. Throughout history there have been many examples of anonymity being the outlet to criticize repressive or autocratic rulers. Without it, we lose a valuable balance to the powers that be.

"As regards illegal activity—people will break the law regardless of whether we know their names online or not. Laws already exist for those cases; we don't need more. The general principles should not change simply because there is new, or widely misunderstood, technology."

So is the lack of anonymity a sticking point for Facebook's billion users? Far from it. The biggest complaint the company gets isn't that it doesn't allow anonymous, or pseudonymous users, but quite the opposite, says Mr. Allan."The complaints we get largely relate to people using fake identities on Facebook. The number of sincere, safety-prompted, user complaints about their inability to represent themselves as somebody else, these don't really happen. They [those complaints] come from activists and regulators, they don't come from normal users whose interest is completely the other way."

Author: Ben Rooney

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