March 07, 2011

New Facebook Feature Empowers the Dangerous "Comment Nazis"

Blog Update (March 15, 2011): Collecting Personal Information About "Facebook Comments" Users for Fun and Profit!

Greetings. Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg has been quoted as saying:

"You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."

This statement, particularly the latter portion, could only have been made by someone supremely self-confident -- and so young that they haven't accumulated much "life baggage" as of yet.

In fact, it is an extremely alarming statement, one that would have gladdened the hearts of despots and government spooks all through human history. Coming from the man child who controls the Facebook empire, such a quote should trigger alarm bells of concern for every person, everywhere, who cares about free speech and civil liberties.

A realization of Zuckerberg's stifling and twisted vision has now emerged in a new Facebook-based Web site commenting system, that permits sites to hand off their commenting infrastructures essentially wholly to Facebook, and requires users who wish to leave comments to do so using their Facebook identities (which, at least in theory, are supposed to be their real names and identities).

Popular site TechCrunch (recently purchased by AOL, it's worth remembering) immediately jumped on this bandwagon, along with this ingratiating note to their readers:

"More important, you’ll notice that any comments you write are being left under your real name, which spells bad news for you trolls and spammers."

Bad news for spammers and trolls perhaps, but even worse news for honest folks who wish to leave quality comments without being formally associated with them.

This isn't just a matter of stifling whistleblowers -- though that's an obvious effect. It's a matter of having basic control over your identity and your life.

Why the hell should it be the business of your boss or anyone else you know, if you want to legitimately comment on a hobby site, or a game site, or on any site about a controversial issue, for that matter?

Of course, there are two fairly obvious factors in play.

First is Zuckerberg's dream of turning Facebook into the world's centralized identity platform across most or all aspects of our lives. He's been clear enough about this goal.

But what the new Facebook commenting platform also does is very cleverly and insidiously leverage the complaints of the "Comment Nazis" to Facebook's advantage.

You don't know about the Comment Nazis? Let me introduce you.

All over the Web, we've seen signs that powerful interests are simply "fed up" with the free flow of information that anonymous comments permit. Such freedom has been particularly bothersome to parties who feel that they've been aggrieved by unidentified comments' authors.

So we've seen more sites demanding that comments be signed with real names, sometimes verified in one way or another. The Facebook comment ploy is a logical extension and centralization of this false "anonymous comments are dangerous" meme.

I've been running online mailing lists and discussion forums for decades -- all the way back into ARPANET days. I've run unmoderated, pre-moderated, and post-moderated venues. In recent years, I've depended mainly on the latter two models -- and they do take continuing work to be effective when you're unwilling to let spam, trash, racism, and other garbage pollute your materials.

Which points to another aspect of this controversy -- laziness. By outsourcing their commenting systems to Facebook (and so crushing the ability of conscientious parties to speak anonymously), participating sites "wash their hands" of most or all effort and responsibility for comment moderation, at the same time that they flush free speech on their sites down the toilet.

In cases of libel or defamation, etc., where sufficient legitimate showing is made for an offense and real damages, I believe that it can on some occasions be justified for a court to order the "unmasking" of an "anonymous" commenter via login or IP address information. But this needs to be strictly limited and controlled with rigorous due process.

But to force all comments into the realm of "single real identity" public exposure -- as Facebook now appears intent on doing -- is unacceptable, reprehensible, dangerous, and utterly at odds with basic free speech rights in the United States at least.

There are costs to living in a "free society" -- or what used to be a free society, at any rate. One of those is that we need to accept some speech that is painful or abhorrent, as part of the price for protecting free speech and civil rights for us all.

When anonymous speech is destroyed, whether under a boot and rifle shot, or via a simple mouse click on a massive social networking site, the damage is strikingly similar in the long run.

People become nervous about speaking their minds. They fear what their neighbor or employer will find out about their private lives. They self-censor and retreat from public life and discourse.

Anybody, and any firm, that encourages such travesties should be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

Our fellow human beings, and history itself, demand no less.


Blog Update (March 15, 2011): Collecting Personal Information About "Facebook Comments" Users for Fun and Profit!

Update (March 7, 2011 20:22 PM): A reader's note triggers a question. I wonder if Facebook's Zuckerberg would accuse those brave Egyptian Twitter users of "lacking integrity" since they usually tweeted without exposing their real identities during the recent upheaval -- would Mark dare say that to their faces? Just a thought ...

Update (March 8, 2011 5:16 PM): A reader describes how making political posts/comments under your real name can result in serious threats.

Update (March 9, 2011 12:40 PM): Another reader discusses the importance of anonymity for comments.

Posted by Lauren at March 7, 2011 12:44 PM | Permalink
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