Saturday, February 12, 2011

Using Real Names has Real Consequences

I post under my own name, but I do it with a consciousness of the risk.

I've been on the net (it was the ARPANET then) since 1977. At that time, we actually had user profiles with a place to supply your social security number, and people often complied because there was no reason to suppose it was dangerous. Those were certainly different times. People today are often horrified as they look back at the practices of those days, but everyone's sensibilities were different then. At some point we noticed that there was danger in having such information out in the open, so the data was erased and the ability to attach it was removed. But initially we were more trusting.

I had an unofficial administrative position on one of these machines as member of a group called “user-accounts” that oversaw guest usage of the machine. Guest users were called “tourists.” They were tolerated on the system as long as they didn't interfere with real work, but sometimes we had to disable an existing account or deny an application for an account if we suspected a potential for problems.

Having their accounts turned off didn't always make people happy. The first time I ever found myself quoted by someone on a web page in the early web, it was a remark quoted out of context from my time as a user-accounts member, where I'd once said in email, “[It] would have taken hours to be fair and we're not employed to do that sort of thing.” You can imagine that kind of attitude upsetting this or that person. In fact, in its proper context, the thing to understand is that we already went to extraordinary lengths to be fair to tourists, spending sometimes hours of unpaid time to make sure we didn't do anyone an injustice. But at some point there was just a limit where we had to just guess.

Life in the digital world is not a certainty, and an entire lab of real research at MIT depended on things operating properly. Just one act of devastation by a tourist on our largely unprotected and highly trusting system would have brought down the entire tourist program, and could have jeopardized research funding for the Lab. It was no small matter. So sometimes we just made arbitrary decisions, and tourists sometimes just had to live with them.

It happened one time, however, that someone was so annoyed by something I'd done that in retaliation he ended up performing an act that I'll describe here simply as “having a real world effect.” It really doesn't matter what the act was, and I don't want to give anyone ideas of mean things to do to someone. We'll just say it was more destructive than just sending an annoyed email, and that it involved the use of real world personal information about me in a way that was not proper. It was a sufficiently invasive act that there may well be a law against it now. Maybe there was a law then, too, but I didn't pursue it legally. My point, though, is that it made me conscious of the fact that not everyone “out on the net” was a nice person, and conscious in a personal, tangible way of the fact that sharing information, even information people have been accustomed to sharing since long before computers, isn't always harmless.

My favorite quote on privacy comes from John Gilmore's remarks to the First Conference on Computers, Freedom, and Privacy in San Francisco 1991, which I had the good fortune to attend. He said:

Society tolerates all different kinds of behaviour -- differences in religion, differences in political opinions, races, etc. But if your differences aren't accepted by the government or by other parts of society, you can still be tolerated if they simply don't know that you are different. Even a repressive government or a regressive individual can't persecute you if you look the same as everybody else. And, as George Perry said today, "Diversity is the comparative advantage of American society". I think that's what privacy is really protecting.

And that brings me to the claim that life would somehow be better if people blogged under their real name—if there were no pseudonyms. The underlying claim, not always expressed explicitly, is that eliminating pseudonyms would make people more polite and/or more accountable. I disagree that it would, even if it did, I don't think the cost is worth the value.

First, there is the question of whether you need to know who a speaker is in order to evaluate truth. I don't think you do. Maybe once in a while. Wikipedia is a monument to this because although you can find out who wrote what in there if you dig really hard, most of the truth that is in there is best verifiable by going and testing to cited references, not by going to who wrote it and by testing their character. If who said it mattered, then they might as well throw out the content after about 100 years since all of the people who've contributed will be dead and there will be no one to validate the content.

Second, the claim that having a publicly known name leads to better accountability is bogus. It's maybe okay if what we mean by “accountable” is exposed to personal whims of literally any individual on the net. But then how is that person accountable? In order to make everyone “accountable” for their speech, the claim seems to be that we should expose them to unbounded real world risk. I don't know about you, but that doesn't seem like much of a solution to me.

And while in most cases it may matter that people are accountable for what they say, consider the case where a patriot needs to speak out against an oppressive government. Before we claim that in all cases we want those willing to speak out to suffer the consequences of doing so, let's remember that rules tolerating offensive speech are not there because we like offensive speech, but rather because sometimes, especially in politics, it's subjective what is offensive. And sometimes it's necessary to make people feel uncomfortable in order to promote change. If governments or even just businesses always knew who was speaking, there might be no way to discuss certain things very critical to all of our lives.

I don't know how much of the recent activity in Egypt required some form of anonymity or pseudonymity to accomplish, but it's not a serious stretch of the imagination to think that the events that recently unfolded might not have happened without some degree of protection for those speaking out. Certainly in the case of corporate whistleblowing, anonymity can be critical. When real world corporate or political power hangs in the balance, perturbing the lives of exposed individuals is well-known to be the cheap way to “fix” the “problem.”

Still, even for those cases that do need accountability, all that matters for accountability is that someone (e.g., an OS system administrator) could contact that person. It's just not necessary that every person in the reading audience know how to contact every writer, since it's not the right or responsibility of most people reading along to be imposing judgment or punishment.

There may indeed be some forums that are more pleasant when real names are used, but the price may be that those forums cannot carry the voices of our most vulnerable or our most controversial. It's worth keeping that cost in focus. There is some risk to words, but there is greater risk to people taking up sticks and stones to make their point. I'd rather see words encouraged over sticks and stones, even if the price is tolerating highly controversial speech.

We should be encouraging people to speak and to feel safe about doing so. Sometimes that requires actual anonymity, sometimes just pseudonymity. But certainly it should not mean that “real names” are always best.

If the words of an anonymous soul appear to be causing a problem, more than likely it's an indicator that we need to learn about how to read anonymous writings, not that we need to reform the production of anonymous writings.

Author's Note: Originally published February 12, 2011 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman.

Tags (from Open Salon): politics, privacy, accountability, writing, authorship, psuedonyms, pseudonymity, anonymity, anonymous, pseudonymous, safety, hacking

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