The power brokers of the web
Most Web Masters – Facebook, Google – want social media profiles to be identified with real people. As the Facebook Statement of Rights and Responsibilities states, “Facebook users provide their real names and information…You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook.” The company actually removes the profiles of individuals who do not appear to be tied to a real person, and the same goes for Google +.
The companies says this leads to greater transparency among users: you can trust that people are who they say they are. But the reason is obviously advertising, since the more data these companies have on their users, the more they can target ads.
Most governments, too, want social media profiles to be of real people. In China and South Korea you need your national ID to register on one of the approved social media networks; in China you now also have to sign a contract stipulating what behavior is and is not acceptable to the censors.
Sometimes these two power brokers work in concert: Facebook, for instance, deletes the accounts of Chinese activists who use false names to protect themselves from the secret police.
But does forcing users to link social media profiles to their real names make the web more or less open? And is that a good or a bad thing for the future of the web?
You are who you are
14,000 Facebook users signed an online campaign to release Syrian lesbian blogger Amina Araf from prison in June 2011. She turned out to be a 40-year-old American called Tom McMaster, who had let his imagination run wild in a blog entitled “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” High-profile frauds such as this undermine trust online.
On the one hand, then, high levels of transparency on social networking sites are good for individual users. I can trust that the man I met via a Facebook friend really is a bachelor who works in finance in New York, not a married father-of-three with a drug problem and a stealing habit. I can trust that malicious identity fraudsters will find it more difficult to create false social media profiles in my name that are damaging to my reputation or career prospects.
Greater transparency is also important in giving credibility to news reports based on social media. This issue came to the fore during the Arab Spring, where several official news reports based on information from social media turned out to be false or faked.
Freedom of expression? Depends what you express
Making social media users personally identifiable makes them less likely to misbehave online. There are laws against inciting others to racial hatred or violence. Cursing, slandering, and preaching extremism are also seen in a dim light. Why are these social rules often bypassed on the web?
In the UK, a black teenage rapper named Matt started uploading videos to YouTube where he rapped about stabbing and gangs in the notorious London neighborhood of Peckham. Lyrics are violent: in one popular video he raps, “You’re always chatting on MSN, you should feel a piece of the knife, stabbing in your head, stabbing in your chest”. A court injunction has now banned Matt from producing and sharing music or videos that encourage violence.
What do we think? Is encouraging others to commit violence an acceptable use of our right to freedom of expression? If not, why should we allow it online?
Many advocates for freedom of expression also advocate for an individual’s right to privacy online. But these two “rights” often clash. Footballer Ryan Giggs, for instance, was busted for adultery by anonymous Twitter users, in defiance of a privacy injuction that had prevented the official media from revealing it. The rights and wrongs of Ryan Giggs’s adultery are not the question; the question is whether his court-approved right to privacy was less important than the freedom of expression of those who wished to laugh in his face.
More transparency in terms of real-life identities on social media may therefore help counteract the anarchy of the web.
Paying the price
The price we pay for our lovely “free” internet is advertising: the online advertising industry is worth over $32 billion in the US alone and is by far the biggest source of finance for web-based services. But anonymous advertising will only support so much – targeted advertising is where the money is.
The more privacy individuals have over their true identities, the less it is possible to target advertising and the less profitable advertising will be… and the more we will have to fork out for what we currently lap up for free.
Fighting crime on Facebook
Police can more easily fight crime – stopping pedophiles from targeting children in anonymous chat forums, infiltrating terrorist networks and identifying potential plots before they occur – if the criminals are more easily traceable.
In the UK, for instance, the government’s recent attempts to introduce more social network surveillance are supported by the Home Office’s argument that “communications data has played a role in every major counter-terrorism operation carried out by the security services and in 95% of all serious organized crime investigations.”
After the London riots in the summer of 2011, the UK police tracked down many of the perpetrators and looters on Facebook and Twitter.
Big brother has already arrived
In any case, as Evgeny Morozov’s depressingly fatalistic book The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom makes clear, government surveillance of the internet and social networking sites is already widespread in most countries. Introducing a law that social media profiles must be related to real people is, perhaps, just a way of formalizing this so that everyone knows where they stand.
Companies have social media policies; perhaps it’s time for society to get one too.
Anonymity and credibility
Attitudes outside the West to the credibility of anonymous social media users may differ. For instance, internet activist Mujtahidd tweets corruption allegations against Saudi Arabia’s ruling family while keeping his real identity undercover. In an email to the Guardian newspaper, he explained: “In our society people are… more ready to believe sensitive information when they see it bare and not linked to a known person. They are also more ready to interact and redistribute the information when the source is anonymous because of the sensitivity.” In countries with repressive regimes, then, officially registered social media users may not be seen as talking freely.
And of course, transparency on the web makes it extremely easy for repressive regimes to track down troublemakers and rumor-mongers, stopping inflammatory posts from going viral or punishing those who criticize the state.
Perhaps the solution lies in allowing different levels of anonymity to exist on the web. In Japan, for instance, pseudonyms are allowed on the three most popular social networking sites. The authenticity and credibility of users is judged on their personal history, which is based on their login ID rather than their name.
At a deeper level of anonymity is 4Chan, an image-based social network where users don’t need accounts – they remain anonymous throughout – or maintain a personal history.
Digging deepest is the Tor Project, which aims to make the internet anonymous once again through a browser and special software that makes it impossible to track a user’s IP address, location, or other personal information. Says Andrew Lewman, the project’s executive director, in an interview with The Guardian: “The ability to be anonymous is increasingly important because it gives people control, it lets them be creative, it lets them figure out their identity and explore what they want to do, or to research topics that aren’t necessarily ‘them’ and may not want tied to their real name for perpetuity.”
On the internet, everyone knows you’re a sock puppet
The internet is no longer a place to hide, and the trend seems to be in the direction of greater transparency, less privacy, more rules, less freedom – or, if you prefer, less anarchy. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy informed the world grandly in the 2011 G8 forum that the internet will no longer be a “parallel universe, free of legal and moral rules”.
Maybe that is a good thing. Maybe it will make us all behave a little nicer to one another.
Or maybe it will start a cyberwar. The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas (“sock puppets”) to influence online conversations and spread pro-American propaganda. The program would allow one US man or woman to control up to ten separate personas – not in the West, the program’s director reassures us, but in the regimes we deem evil and worthy of war and subterfuge. The US were also behind efforts to keep social media channels open during the Egypt and Libya uprisings in order to help activists organize protests and marches.
There are great contradictions inherent in supporting subversive attempts by anonymous online rebels to rock the boat in their countries – not to mention the sock puppets – while lobbying for greater “openness” at home.
The future of (internet) freedom is in our hands
We started with the seemingly innocent question of whether social media profiles should be registered to real people, and we ended with crime, spying, state repression and the possibility of cyberwar.
Only we’re not at the end, we’re still at the beginning. How we handle issues of privacy, credibility and responsibility on the web in the next few years will radically reshape the world in which our children grow up.