I’d like to take a small break from technical articles to ask a question that has sparked debate all over the internet for ages and has even reached our own forums at one point or another. Recently the topic played host to many heated arguments on the local News24 site and I feel it’s something that warrants some thought, even if it’s an issue that doesn’t bother you.
Is it necessary (or justified) to require someone on the internet, be they a writer, forumite or commenter on an article, to use their real name when posting their opinions?
Here’s an example situation: you’re posting your opinion somewhere on the internet and along comes another internet user who takes offense to what you’re saying and hides behind an avatar or an anonymous title to prevent you from knowing their identity and then starts a flame war. Angry, you remark that the only reason why the other person is posting drivel is because they wouldn’t normally do it using their real identity.
“Man up,” you say, “and put your name to your opinions if you feel so strongly about them, because otherwise you’re just a coward. In fact, everyone should just drop this anonymous avatar thing altogether. Free Speech isn’t free speech if you can use it to commit hate speech! Ban anonymity, yeah! Who’s with me?“
Hold on just a minute there.
Is it justified to say that everyone should use their real names when voicing their opinions, because with the weight of our reputations we would supposedly be more polite? Should we view opinions differently when they’re made anonymously? Do we then invalidate all other opinions made using an avatar because they would otherwise be hidden or kept locked inside when not voiced under a pseudonym?
Part of the problem here is that it deals directly with privacy issues and the generally-accepted right to privacy. I post my opinions and articles under my real name because writing for the internet is a career I’m actively trying to keep up – the longer I keep up my online presence, the quicker I’ll be found on Google and the more people will read what I write; in turn that makes me an easy target, that’s the deal you make when you become a more public figure. Its not that I’m a better person because I do so, I do it because I have to. But what about average Joe/Jane, who likes to keep his/her privacy intact? Perhaps there are legitimate reasons for doing so, such as to avoid a conflict of interest or protect job security when speaking out against illegal operations.
Or perhaps you don’t want anyone clicking on your profile to eventually figure out who you are and where you live. Posting opinions online using your real identity is a choice the users themselves have to make, its not something that can, or should be, forced. If you want people to be able to randomly invite you on Facebook, or stalk you on Twitter, that’s a choice only you can make. If you’re announcing that you’re making cookies on Twitter but have run out of sugar, then post from inside the shopping mall across the road that you’ve found a 2kg bag at a good price, its easy to use Twitter’s location feature to allow someone to shadow your footsteps and arrive on your doorstep to share in the cookie delights.
As has always been the case, there will be people that will find ways to abuse this protection. They’ll sign up under an anonymous avatar and post whatever they want, free from the chains of consequence that normally follows from being a loudmouth in public. Of course, there will be people who create five profiles for a forum just to troll everyone – they do it because they can. Taking away this freedom that other people enjoy for legitimate purposes in the name of “claiming your opinions”, or putting an end to insulting others under the protection of anonymity, is a poor argument.
China is currently mulling over new legislation that requires all internet users to use their real names for “security reasons” and to effectively censor information being spread that talks about the government in a bad light, as well as locate and apprehend the person responsible. In America, anonymity on the internet is widely regarded by internet users as a right, but information is something the government is always keen on controlling – they now have the power to monitor any and all electronic communications inside the US on the basis of “national security concerns” without a warrant. We’re lucky that there wasn’t a consensus on internet anonymity at the UN meetings recently – they could have done away with it all, right then and there. Here in South Africa, its highly unlikely that the ANC views the internet as a tool – its more an irritation (they’ve even threatened to “shut down Twitter” at one point). But the basic principle remains – taking away anonymity on the internet is the same as breaching the basic human right to privacy. That’s the only thing on the internet that should be sacrosanct.
It seems, though, that many people are actually in support of this. On a New24 column, Hateful Insult Cowers Behind Free Expression by Joanne Hichens, you need to scroll down and see in the comments section how many people are supportive of the idea of abandoning the use of avatars to keep people honest (which, in all likelihood won’t work). Are all of these people aware that by posting on Disqus, they’re also linking their profile to every other post they’re making on sites using the service? Do they know that its too easy to find out where they live if they use their real Facebook profile when posting comments on the rest of News24? Hell, you can figure out where I live by using Google Maps and a Youtube video I posted ages ago, its that easy.
As I’ve said before, there will always be people ready to abuse anonymity because it prevents them from facing any consequences from their actions. People will continue to insult and abuse others whether they’re using an anonymous identity or not – the only difference is there’ll be less people doing this because they’ll be using their real names. However, you’re not solving the problem by taking away anonymity, you’re just sweeping it under the carpet, hiding it away from view because if you don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
But is controlling the trolls and haters worth abandoning privacy on the most open, invasive and disrespectful places on the planet? I say no, leave it be. What say you, NAGlings? Does privacy on the internet mean anything to you? Do you view free speech as free speech if there’s a list of things you can and cannot say?
Discuss this in the forums: Linky