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PRIVACY: Naming Names on the Internet

By Eric Pfanner
Sept 6, 2011

PARIS — Three years ago, after the suicide of a popular actress who had been bullied via the Internet, South Korea introduced a radical policy aimed at stamping out online hate. It required contributors to Web portals and other popular sites to use their real names, rather than pseudonyms.

Last month, after a huge security breach, the government said it would abandon the system. Hackers stole 35 million Internet users’ national identification numbers, which they had been required to supply when registering on Web sites to verify their identities.

The South Korean experience shows that “real name” policies are a lousy idea, and privacy threats are only one reason. Online anonymity is essential for political dissidents, whose role has been highlighted in the uprisings in the Arab world, and for corporate whistle-blowers. In the United States, the Supreme Court has found a constitutional basis for protecting anonymity.

Why, then, are the calls for restrictions on Internet anonymity growing?

Last month, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich of Germany said bloggers should disclose their true identities. He cited the case of the Norwegian terrorist suspect Anders Behring Breivik, who had professed admiration for a blogger who wrote under the pseudonym “Fjordman.”

“Normally people use their names when they take a position,” Mr. Friedrich told Der Spiegel. “Why shouldn’t this be something that is also self-evident on the Internet?”

His words were echoed by Eric E. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, who said during a media conference in Edinburgh last month: “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.”

Mr. Schmidt was speaking in relation to Google Plus, the company’s new social networking service. If people do not want to give their real names, he noted, they do not have to use Google Plus.

Fair enough. Still, it is discouraging to hear a top executive at a company that says it is committed to an “open Internet” opine that anonymity is overrated.

True, the Internet would probably be more civilized if contributors to online discussions had to use their real names. Some people might even start to use spell check and proper punctuation.

And it is true that cyberbullying is nasty. Perhaps anonymity ought not to be defended to every extreme.

What about online death threats, for example? Should they be considered less menacing than threats delivered via the mail or in person? The question is at the heart of a U.S. court case in which a California man is accused of posting 8,000 abusive, anonymous messages on Twitter about a Maryland-based Buddhist leader and her group.

The case shows that the authorities already have tools for rooting out anonymous trolls and troublemakers when they really want to do so. Further evidence of that is seen in a series of arrests of members of one of the most notorious hacker rings, who operate under the name Anonymous.

Mr. Schmidt’s support for the use of real identities has more to do with commerce than crime-fighting. Google wants to know more about its users because this information is valuable to advertisers and other businesses.

“If we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them, we could give them things, we could, you know, bill them; you know, we could have credit cards and so forth and so on, there are all sorts of reasons,” he was quoted as saying in Edinburgh.

Yet the complications are enormous. Even self-contained Internet services like Facebook have had difficulty enforcing “real name” systems. To achieve this on the borderless Internet would be impossible — as South Korea discovered with YouTube, a unit of Google. Rather than complying with the country’s policy on names, Google blocked uploads to YouTube’s Korean version and redirected users to YouTube.com, the site’s international version.

The real world is often messy, chaotic and anonymous. The Internet is mostly better that way, too.



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