Anonymity, Accountability and Free Speech

Since the debut of Google+ there has been a storm of controversy surrounding the new social network’s real name policy. The attempt to enforce what Google believes to be a form of legitimacy on their users has been met with both approval and disgust. Today I hope to address why the topic of online anonymity has become a battleground, and whether the Google+ approach represents the future of an online presence.

What motivates the Google+ Policy?

Essentially, Google hopes to build a community which engages in positive interaction, and the company believes that by linking users’ actions to their real world names, they are imposing accountability. Theoretically, this would discourage users from planning criminal activity through the site, engaging in cyber-bullying, and the posting of hostile material. In the past social networks have been used to encourage violence during the London Riots, and as platforms for serious bullying tactics that have led to teen suicide. One group of State Senators in New York are so disturbed by the recent outbreak of online cruelty that they have drafted a bill specifically targeting cyber-bullying. They argue that anonymity enables this behavior.

While blogger David Cowan credits the Google+ policy as a sincere attempt to address these issues, and to “promote trust and transparency,” as well as “mitigate spam and flame wars,” researcher Danah Boyd has gone so far as to call the policy an “abuse of power,” and accuse the Google+ team of insensitivity and oppression. Those against the policy also argue that it represents an attempt to profit from Google+ users by building a comprehensive consumer profile.

Google+ has inspired a discussion about free speech and social responsibility that pivots around the question of Anonymity

Why do so many people advocate for Anonymity?

Those against anonymity claim that the use of a pseudonym is disingenuous because theoretically it allows users to say or do just about anything online without fear of reprisal or consequence. This may be true, but therein lies the value. Americans might be frustrated by another user’s ability to defy our ethical code, and even act cruelly, with the help of a fake username. However, the ability to remain anonymous also protects a vast number of users who have perfectly defensible reasons for wanting to separate their online persona from their real name.

Political dissidents fighting back against totalitarian regimes, people hoping to subtly ask medical questions, employees attempting to keep their personal lives separated from their work lives, people who have in the past been victims of stalking and abuse- all take shelter under the cloak of anonymity. In her argument against the Google+ policy Danah Boyd provided an informative list of how some real people have justified their anonymity.

One particularly poignant article by Jon Evans discussed how a Mexican woman anonymously blogging about the drug cartels was exposed, and later found murdered next to a threat against others who spoke out through social media. Evans argued that Google’s attitude toward the policy reflected “monstrous cluelessness.” Often free expression and free speech rely upon our faith in our online anonymity, we may fear being stigmatized, or, according to David Cowan, “ostracized, fired, arrested or physically targeted.” Writer Matthew Ingram simply stated that “the policy can have negative consequences in terms of suppressing dialogue about important topics.”

For a brief overview, the two sides are broken down by Mashable’s infographic.

Is there an answer that allows for both accountability and free expression?

Several experts have proposed separate but similar solutions. Essentially, they involve ratings and reward systems. Rather than force users to use their legal or professional names, these solutions would encourage them to use the site’s best practices by rewarding them with better features, higher ratings and community respect. David Cowan wrote that by implementing a scale, and then allowing users to be either completely anonymous (0) or entirely transparent (10), Google+ could then simply make different features available to different types of users. Different accounts and identity rankings would be useful for different purposes.

Perhaps the most thoughtful attempt at a solution was Matthew Ingram’s article, “Can Gamification help Solve the Online Anonymity Problem?” Ingram doesn’t believe that there must necessarily be a choice between anonymity and credibility. On many sites, for instance the rapidly growing social news site Reddit, users are able to establish themselves within the community and rank one another. Each time a member of the community submits new content, or comments in a discussion, other users have the ability to up or downvote these actions. Users who contribute value to the community are rewarded with ‘karma,’ as well as various trophies. Even though most Redditors use pseudonym’s, they still work to build a positive reputation, and are held accountable for their actions by other users. Essentially, this is Ingram’s idea, to “design a system that rewards the behavior you want to see, and lets the users of that community decide who they wish to pay attention to.”

In the future

Rather than simply discussing the immediate impact of such policies, bloggers like Jon Evans have pointed out the shrinking scope of anonymity in the real world; now filled with video cameras, smart phones, and facial recognition software. He believes that online anonymity will only become more vital when it becomes the only anonymity left to us.

What are your thoughts about transparency versus freedom of expression, do you have a specific reason that you would rather remain anonymous?

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