July 26, 2011

Real Names, Guilt, Self-Censorship, and the Identity War

"Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."
    -- William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, circa 1760s

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In the mere month since the public launching of Google+, it has become clear that this innovative and highly useful service -- that I've been happily using since its initial availability on June 28th -- has triggered a growing controversy over foundational issues of identity on the Internet.

Yet make no mistake about it, Google+ itself is not the real issue here at all.

Complex issues involving real names, nicknames, pseudonyms, anonymity, verified identity, and more have been pulled into the spotlight by this launch, largely due to Google's desire that users' associated public profiles include their real (or at least their "commonly used") names, and questions regarding how users' adherence to this requirement are being evaluated.

These are all issues that not only predate Google+, but that in fact involve all manner of non-Google Internet-related services as well -- obviously including other social media sites like Facebook, but also much more broadly in terms of public discourse, government involvement in identity systems, and an almost endless of array of associated aspects.

In two earlier postings regarding identity and Google+ (Google+, Privacy, and Balancing Identity and Google+'s "Identity" Controversy: No Easy Answers), I've attempted to provide some sense of the highly complex, interrelated, and often conflicting factors involved in these matters, and suggested some possible "balancing" paths forward for consideration. If you haven't seen those postings, you might wish to glance over them before proceeding below.

Google+ is very new and evolving rapidly. We can expect various changes to an array of aspects involving the service -- I anticipate that these will ultimately involve profiles and naming requirements as well.

Yet we continue to see various arguments associated with Internet identity being driven significantly by what I personally believe to be incomplete and inappropriately skewed examples and reasoning.

An example of this is an article that appeared a couple of days ago in the UK publication Guardian, titled "How the internet created an age of rage."

The article comes down very hard against anonymity (and by extension, pseudonymity), blaming these for the "coarsening" of discourse on the Net. The piece ends with "Generally, though, who should be afraid to stand up and put their name to their words? And why should anyone listen if they don't?" -- saying in essence that anonymity and its ilk should only be acceptable in a small set of very limited circumstances.

Hundreds of years ago, the English jurist William Blackstone made the statement I quoted just above at the start of this essay, commonly called "Blackstone's formulation" today, about the need to protect innocents even when that means that some guilty may go free.

While this concept is usually applied to matters of criminal law, as exemplified by pronouncements such as "innocent until proven guilty," I believe that Blackstone's words may also speak to us across the centuries regarding identity issues on the Internet.

Because the point of view expressed by that Guardian article, various Congressmen, and other authorities, who have been publicly castigating anonymity/pseudonymity and equating these concepts with criminal and antisocial behaviors, is very much in keeping with a "guilty until proven innocent" mindset.

One way to see this clearly is to examine one aspect that I consider to be among the most important in these debates -- the chilling self-censorship that can occur when persons are forced to reveal their identities in situations where this really should not be necessary.

I definitely feel that knowing persons' real names in social media does generally have very positive aspects -- but that there are also many situations where this can indeed be quite problematic.

Many arguments (such as those made by the Guardian and others) against anonymity are phrased in terms of the perceived abilities anonymity provides "bad actors" to be impolite, nasty, ugly, or even behave in criminal manners.

These are all decidedly negative behaviors. But I would argue that persons who truly want to "anonymously" comport themselves in these manners will always find ways to do so. Absent draconian and absolute government-linked Internet access identity requirements, not only will these persons create real-appearing false identities, but in practice they may find themselves tracked down anyway by IP addresses or other means in serious cases of abuse (or at least accused abuse).

This points out an important truth -- what most people think of as "anonymity" on the Internet tends to usually be something much less if enough resources are directed at finding the sources of specific posted materials.

So in all honesty, I believe the focus on persons who wish to abuse "anonymity" is something of a red herring.

What we should instead be focusing upon is what I believe should be the default case -- how identity issues impact innocent persons who have justifiable reasons for not wanting to be identified with particular Internet postings and the like.

I've previously discussed obvious cases such as whistleblowers, political speech, and persons living lifestyles that might be viewed "skeptically" by current or potential employers, insurance companies, and other entities.

But there are many more cases where persons who could have useful information and insights to contribute to online discussions, will self-censor themselves into silence to protect themselves or others, to the detriment of the community at large that might otherwise have benefited from that discourse.

Here's just one "thought experiment" example. Imagine someone who has a disease with an associated social stigma, or even more to the point, who has a child with such a disease.

Is it reasonable to require a parent to reveal their own identity -- and so effectively in many cases reveal the identity of their children -- in order to participate in a social media discussion about that disease?

Remember, the Internet has a long memory, such materials will likely remain online indefinitely.

Similarly, should an adult taking care of a parent with Alzheimer's disease be required to identify themselves (and again, by extension likely their parent as well) in order to seek out advice on a social media thread, or to author a potentially useful public comment on an article or blog posting?

I would argue no in both cases.

Think about it for a bit and I'm sure you'll be able to visualize many similar situations, some even more serious. Remember, it's not just a question of identifying yourself, but in many cases you also end up effectively (by association) identifying your friends, co-workers, family members and others without their permissions, in discussions that may persist online for years or decades.

These are the affected innocents of whom I spoke earlier.

And this also helps to explain why I feel that an optional mechanism that holds concerned users' "real names" in a sort of "escrow" -- not publicly visible under normal circumstances -- could be a potential way out of this dilemma in many cases.

The bad guys are going to falsify everything they can anyway. But the innocents as in the parental/child examples above -- who feel that they cannot publicly discuss key matters when identified by their real names -- do not have evil motives, and so there should be no harm to the Internet in permitting their public nomenclatures to be something other than their real names in the vast majority of situations.

I am certainly not claiming that the logistics of making this work in practice would be simple. There would be a lot of details and work involved in bringing such a system to fruition.

Many of the debates regarding Internet identity have dangerously skewed into a "presumed guilt" sort of prejudice, asserting that applying rules to everyone that are appropriate for the bad actors, for the guilty, is somehow necessary even though most persons do not fall into such nefarious categories.

I prefer using my real name on postings -- but as I've mentioned previously, I have also self-censored myself regarding some sensitive, personal matters where I felt there simply was no need for me to be identified, and questions that I could have answered (e.g., on sites using the "real identity required" Facebook commenting system) were left unanswered as a result.

We seem to have turned the assumption of innocence on its head, and have allowed fears of abuse to create an atmosphere were everyone is treated as if they are likely abusers.

If nothing else, this is not in keeping with the best traditions of Anglo-American jurisprudence, is fundamentally just not fair, and is potentially damaging to society at large in the long run.

I believe that jurist William Blackstone, if he were alive today, would feel very much the same way.


Posted by Lauren at July 26, 2011 12:32 PM | Permalink
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