We need less anonymity on the Internet. And we need more privacy. And the two should go together.
The vast, lazy culture of message-board anonymity is a perfect example of "slacktivism" — an easy but false solution to the problem of our eroding right to true privacy, which will take real grit and courage to solve.
Face it, all "anonymity" saves you from is accountability before your peers.
It lets people release the worst in themselves through trolling and online fraud, and disconnects people from a reality where you're held responsible for the stupid things you say.
It dramatically lowers the reliability of Internet communication, as people can lie without real consequence.
It makes Internet-based activism a joke when any online petition can be signed by a thousand sock puppets.
Internet users need to face up to the 21st-century truth: What's online can't be separated from "real life." It's all real. It's just life.
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Losing the weak anonymity of handles and the false differentiation between "reality" and "cyberspace" would stamp out all sorts of worthless, childish behavior.
Take the jerk who has a second wife on "Second Life," to the dismay of wife No. 1.
There is no "second life." There's only one life, bigamist. Even "Second Life" the company is starting to figure that out, demanding identity verification to access some parts of the service.
Or take the loser who instant-messaged me trying to impersonate a celebrity for no apparent reason. Or all the folks who post on message boards just to inflame passions, not to engage in genuine discussion.
Wonder if they'd do that if their names were attached? The plague of spam would certainly slow if rules requiring the authentication of e-mail senders came into force.
Meanwhile, you may have a false anonymity, but you have no privacy — not from Google's database of Web searches, private addresses and phone numbers, nor from government agencies' searches of your Internet service provider's records.
False anonymity leads to a complacency where we forget that we don't have privacy where it really counts — because we're able to act like idiots in front of strangers who don't matter.
You may think you can pretend to be somebody else on the Internet, but the Department of Homeland Security doesn't see the distinction between you and your cyber-self.
Getting rid of the Internet's lazy anonymity habits will actually aid the cause of privacy, because it'll finally bring the issue of online privacy into the day-to-day world.
Do you want to protect your message-board postings from prying eyes? Well, right now they can be probed by any law-enforcement tyro with a grudge.
Without the imaginary shield of weak anonymity, people will have the incentive to rise up and demand some laws that would actually protect privacy — against our peers, our corporations and our government. We can have a real societal debate over what information should be public and when people should be accountable.
My vote: If I want something I write not to be indexed and not to be searchable, or if I want to delete something I wrote anywhere, I should be able to do so. With the duty of accountability should come the right to power over your own words.
Who Needs Real Privacy?
Real privacy would help the people who actually need to be anonymous on the Net: corporate whistle-blowers, teenagers seeking advice about sensitive personal subjects, that sort of thing.
Just as in the non-Net world, there are limited situations where people need to be anonymous. But we should start from a presumption that people should be honest about who they are unless they have a real need for anonymity.
Those who truly require it, the few Deep Throats, are outnumbered by self-serving agenda-pushers, cowards who don't live up to their words.
Opinions worth having are worth putting your name to. Do you see people walking down the street in ski masks and wigs to hide their identities and calling themselves "xxLuvNKisses906xx?" I don't, and I live in New York City.
Or how about this — let's open a Web-handle ghetto. If people want to flame each other with handles without a real reason for doing so, they can do so on a limited set of message boards, which will quickly devolve into sludge.
Perhaps each purveyor of message boards can have one free-for-all forum allowing that sort of nonsense. On the rest of the Net, we'll be grown-ups.
My proposal here applies only to the U.S. and Canada. People who live under more oppressive regimes can post all the anonymous stuff they want; they have my blessing.
But we, luckily, live in a place where the government and Web firms will respond to the people, if the people get angry enough. And if the people sign their own names.
Copyright © 2007 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.