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In defence of online anonymity

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Watching the Watchers

Every time a mainstream news media outlet bans "anonymous" online comments a debate opens up somewhere about the nature of online anonymity.

Recently the Huffington Post made a decision to move in this direction starting next month. Despite its leftish pretensions, the Huffington Post is part of a multimillion-dollar online publishing empire. It was purchased by AOL two years ago for $315 million.

Ariana Huffington's announcement led to this rabble staff blog post which opened up a fresh discussion on whether rabble.ca should continue to allow anonymous posts. Mind you, there has been an ongoing thread on this issue on rabble's babble forum that dates back at least three years.

The web has in recent years become a rather nasty place with racist, sexist, heterosexist and otherwise trolling comments becoming increasingly common. There's also the phenomenon of cyber bullying. This is no doubt fuelled by the rise of the right wing including the Tea Party in the U.S. and the xenophobic right-wing parties in Europe. In Canada, the hard right has largely found a home in the Conservative Party.  Other individuals simply don't have a built-in filter and hit the "post" button without thinking.

The right has been caught actively recruiting trolls on Craigslist to post conservative talking points in Canadian media "comment" sections.

The kneejerk reaction of many media outlets has been to require those who post comments on sites to use their "real names" or else to register with third-party data-mining services like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and increasingly Disqus.

The punditocracy, politicians and media moguls tell us that if we post an online opinion, we should have the guts to stand behind what we say by using our real names.

There are plenty of legitimate reasons for people to post anonymously online.

Imagine being an LGBT person in a place where being LGBT isn't safe, like Vladimir Putin's Russia.

What if you happen to be pro-union, but work in a place like Wal-Mart or Target, where being pro-union can cost you your job.

Or, maybe you work for a corporation or government agency where corrupt practices are taking place and you haven't quite figured out a safe exit strategy or how to safely blow the whistle.

Perhaps you've been the victim of domestic violence or some other kind of violence in your community and want to be able to talk about your experiences without being identified.

Real names policies silence all of these kinds of people. Real names policies cause harm.

It's also largely a myth that real names policies eliminate online trolling. There are plenty of trolls and cyber bullies who post with their real names.  

This is probably a first for me, praising comments made by someone at Microsoft.   Danah Boyd, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research has said:"Real names" policies aren't empowering; they're an authoritarian assertion of power over vulnerable people."

We need to find ways to manage the behaviour of the trolls and cyber bullies, without silencing already marginalized voices.

On rabble's babble forum, there is a model for online discussion that others should follow. The forum has a strict code of conduct, much stricter than most mainstream media sites and it is enforced by paid moderators.

Obvious spammers, flamers and trolls are dealt with quickly. Regular participants who get a little hot under the collar and launch into flame wars are frequently put into a cyber "penalty box" for a week or two with their posting privileges temporarily removed until they chill out. Mind you, if the flaming behaviour continues, their accounts are closed permanently.

Being a babble moderator can be tough and gut-wrenchingly difficult work (full disclosure, I am the spouse of a former babble moderator, and I count a number of current and former babble moderators as personal friends). However, this system works.

If a struggling non-profit news and opinion service like rabble.ca can figure out how to deal with trolls and spammers in a manner that preserves people's freedom to be anonymous or at least pseudo anonymous, then mainstream media can figure it out too. Like most capitalist enterprises these days the mainstream media is just into "cutting labour costs".

More importantly there is a sinister side to "real names only" online policies.

Mainstream corporate media, whether of the old analog type or in its new digital form, is primarily about delivering large numbers of eyeballs to advertisers. However in the digital world, efforts are being made to increase the efficiency of ad content through mining your personal data.

Most digital media that have some form of "real names" policy require you to have an account with Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or the online commenting platform "Disqus" before you can post something. All of these services encourage you to disclose as much personal information as possible.

These corporations are constantly learning about your thoughts, your ideas, your friends, what you look like, what you wear and most importantly what you'd like to buy. For fans of the post-1980s Star Trek series, it's not unlike the cybernetic space aliens known as "The Borg" who were able to constantly learn from their opponent's tactics making them practically invincible in a space dustup.

Facebook is at the leading edge of data mining. Recently, in a discussion about online spying I made an offhand comment about how cheap it is for intelligence agencies to store personal data because of how inexpensive digital storage has become. I mentioned the relatively low cost of large storage capacity hard drives at local retailer Tiger Direct.

For the next few weeks I continued to see ads for sales on hard drives at Tiger Direct in my Facebook sidebar.

There is a growing confluence of interests between mainstream news media and online corporate social networking services. Every time you click on a link, that information is recorded. Every time you "like" something that someone posts, a record is kept. When you tag a photo of someone you know, you are in effect, informing on them.

Through the use of tracking cookies installed in your web browser, websites and advertising services follow your movements around the web. Online tracking services engage in continuous learning.

Columbia University Professor Eben Moglen is the founder of the Software Freedom Law Centre. His credentials on digital freedom go back decades. He's the lawyer who represented Philip Zimmerman, the creator of the digital encryption software "Pretty Good Privacy" (PGP) back in the 1990s.

Since then he's been the lawyer who's worked to defend the freedoms established in free software licenses and has been the inspiration behind projects like the distributed social networking platform Diaspora* and the Freedom Box Project.

In his keynote address last year at the re:publica conference held in Berlin, Moglen talked about how  books (and by extension newspapers and magazines) are going to disappear. He warned that with digital media, the generation that is alive today may very well be the last generation that is able to engage in the simple act of anonymous reading.

Whatever we read, watch, listen to (and comment on) in the online world is monitored and recorded and kept in server logs. Business intelligence software is then run on those massive log files and the corporations find out all kinds of things about us. They even find out things that we don't even know about ourselves.

Online services may tell you that they don't collect any "personally identifiable information" (PII) about you. But this is hardly comforting. If a corporation knows A, B, C, and D about you, it isn't all that hard for them to fill in the blanks and figure out E, F and G.

Which brings me back to Disqus. Disqus and other services like it have been implemented on thousands of blogs and media sites to manage comments. Although Disqus has a "privacy policy," it is in reality a data-mining policy.

It's pretty creepy and so I refuse to comment on sites that make use of Disqus.

If you'd like to know what a genuine privacy policy looks like, have a look at the privacy policy for alternative search engine "DuckDuckGo."

Finally, we live in an era where heroic figures like Edward Snowden have exposed the level of NSA spying around the world. There is little difference between mining your personal data for commercial purposes and mining it for political purposes. The technologies are largely the same.

Just as we shouldn't feed the trolls, we should stop feeding the spies.

And we should keep this little corner of the web safe for the marginalized by continuing to allow anonymous comments.

Thank you for reading this story…

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We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
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  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
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  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
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