Backwards attitude to online identity erodes our power

Demanding that people use their real names to access internet services, except in special circumstances, is a dramatic, but largely undiscussed shift of power away from individuals to corporations and governments.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, now Google's chief internet evangelist, has been defending the company's controversial "real names" policy, explaining that letting some users display pseudonyms instead of their real names in certain circumstances offers adequate "choice" in how they represent themselves.

But when your decide in different situations to identify yourself with your legal name (sometimes called your "wallet name" because it's on all the plastic in your wallet), or a nickname, or a pseudonym — or nothing at all and remain anonymous — it isn't a consumer choice, like deciding what colour iPad cover to buy. It's actually about risk and power.

Google isn't alone in pushing for real names, of course. Facebook and many other services are playing this game too. And governments support the idea because apparently, knowing someone's name will prevent them from doing bad things — from harassing celebrities on Twitter and being rude in blog comments, to committing fraud or planning terrorists attacks.

But Google is pushing the hardest, "encouraging" users rather assertively to merge their accounts on different Google services into one mega-identity that cross-links everything they do in the Googleverse — what they search for and read, what they write in their email and on the Google+ social network, what's scheduled in their calendar, what photos they take, where they were standing when making calls on their Android phone — everything.

"Anonymity and pseudonymity are perfectly reasonable under some situations," Cerf told Reuters. Sure, but it's not Google's place to decide what those situations might be and only handing out masks of anonymity or pseudonymity if people pass their tests. Choosing how you identify yourself in different circumstances is incredibly subtle and incredibly personal.

"The people who most heavily rely on pseudonyms in online spaces are those who are most marginalised by systems of power. 'Real names' policies aren't empowering; they're an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people," wrote cultural researcher danah boyd.

The demand for real names is often positioned as much-needed "transparency" in the face of internet badness. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg once said that having multiple identities indicated "a lack of integrity". Yet multiple identities are normal. We present different personas in different social situations to avoid embarrassment or worse. If Zuckerberg and Google fail to see that, then they fail to see normal human society.

The core problem here is that most internet companies have got it backwards. In the physical world, anonymity is the norm. We only identify ourselves by this so-called "real name" in certain circumstances.

This morning, I phoned to order a taxi, the driver took me into town, a shopkeeper sold me food and drink, CityRail sold me a train ticket, and later today, I'll doubtless discuss the affairs of the day with strangers in a bar — and none of this commerce will have involved my identity.

Yet in the online world, the exact opposite is being proposed. Worse, in fact. My identity isn't just demanded and my activities tracked by the organisations I deal with directly, but by all their services providers — Facebook for a login system, Discus to post a comment, Google for website analytics, Eventbrite to book for a seminar, and so on. None of these are parties to the transaction.

It doesn't have to be this way. In many situations, you really only need to prove your entitlement, not your identity. I'm now well past the age where I have to show ID to get into a bar — but that's not actually about identity. It's about whether I'm of legal drinking age. My identity is none of the publican's business — unless strife breaks out and the police are called, and then it's the police who need my identity.

Real names are needed in far fewer situations than many policy-makers imagine. Trusted third-party systems can confirm your entitlement to use a service without identifying you by name. Users of Austria's public health system can generate a one-time pseudonym that allows them to get help for an injury while on holiday, say, without revealing their real name that might link back to health records revealing their psychiatric treatment for an unrelated embarrassing problem.

But there's little incentive for businesses or even governments to help preserve our traditional state of anonymity. Changing the social default from anonymous to real names is cheaper and simpler to implement because there's no subtlety or discretion to it. And it helps fuel the big-data revolution, where tracking our activities enables the creation of comprehensive dossiers on our lives. Businesses will be able to predict when we're pregnant, about to be ill, or might not be a good employee — but we ourselves won't know.

Only businesses and governments will get that power. The big-data revolution is about our data, or at least data about us, compiled and kept hidden.

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