Sticks and stones

Over the last few months I’ve come across a number of articles or comments about the need for people online to not hide behind pseudonyms and false identities in order to prevent miscreants from abusing people. While I see a valid point I think it creates more problems than it prevents.

I myself hover somewhere in the middle about identity. My philosophy is that I don’t walk around in public with a full name tag on me so I won’t online, where possible. People in public might overhear from a talk with a friend that I’m ‘Mo’, but not unless a stranger comes up and talks to me would I consider telling them more about who I am. I’m quite happy to do that by email or private messaging, and I know that there are certain circumstances where it is advisable to let people publicly know about you if you’re offering some sort of service or product, but I think it ends there.

Some people say that commentators on blogs or people on social networking sites should all be forced to reveal who they are. The ugly part of this is that it makes the net unattractive if, for example, you’re being stalked by someone or you don’t care about connecting with past friends, or even current ones. Furthermore, forcing someone to use their real name isn’t going to be a fix-all; no doubt there are plenty of John Smiths in the world and if one of them is making nasty comments on someone’s site, just which Mr. Smith it is we won’t know. You could go a step further and insist that people have photographs of themselves on some sort of universal Disqus/Gravatar database. At this point we’re creating a web passport. You could go further and creepier by insisting that a web user has their address and phone number in their account details, even if not shown, so that an offender could be outed. I might sound like I’m rambling about a Big Brother nightmare but I do take privacy moderately seriously.

Sure, the internet has a very dark underbelly that contrasts with all the positive benefits we get from it, but the positive of a seedy side is that is there to be seen and tackled. The vast majority of us are disgusted by child pornography, but the fact some paedophiles, extraordinarily, choose a policeable outlet such as the internet means that such people are easy to find – and you don’t need ‘web passports’; present the evidence to an ISP and they will handover the holy grail of an IP address which leads to a date and time of use and billing details to catch the perpetrator. This is back door outing.

When talking about less serious things (not to diminish the stress they cause), things like sexism and racism, if delivered through anonymity, often reveal cowardice on the protagonist’s part. In some cases it’s probably not intentional as they may value their privacy overall, but if I were to say something completely objectionable and knowingly, it would be man of me to attribute it to some sort of identity that can be attacked; not just ‘Anon’. For this reason I see any rash statements by anon as void.

There are websites (e.g. white nationalism) where one can say certain things in public comfort, but you know what? That’s the beauty of free speech. I might not like it, but if I can speak so should they; and it’s only in observing opinions can you tackle them. It’s better to be aware of things we don’t like rather than to bar them or create an environment in which one would not like to speak; to shove them in a corner somewhere out of debate.

I understand that, in light of some media cases, cyber bullying is seen as a valid reason to de-hood people, but if you go too far you may harm the victim and push the offences outside of the internet where people were tracked and recorded. Barring people from being objectionable doesn’t stop them from being objectionable, it just makes them more resentful and forces them to unleash elsewhere. The further problem about objectionable is defining it. There are many isms that people find abhorent, but if we start clamping down on more people with undesirable thought, where do we stop? Every one of us holds some sort of opinion that causes friction, even if delivered in the form of a constructive argument, but we can misconstrue constructiveness and sometimes, due to our humanity, veer into ad hominem attacks. Who, then, in the end gets to speak?

I agree that something needs to be done about abuse, but making sure that everyone is seen on the class register isn’t the way to go about it. The same thing applies to the nonsense idea of ID cards. I already have a passport, and by whatever means you identify me, it still wouldn’t reveal why I chose to do something.


One Comment

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that online anonymity is important. Discussion without fear of persecution stimulates progress and saves lives and careers.


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