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Nyms, Names and Anonymity on the Web

written by: Rebecca Scudder•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 8/21/2011

Google+ lost its golden glow about a month after it opened its beta, with some 20 million people already signed up. The honeymoon breaker boils down to nyms, names and anonymity -- identities on the web. Google+ has provoked two discussions -- one on pseudonyms (nyms) and the other on common names.

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    Google has said it is enforcing its controversial real name policy so that people can find and connect with others they know; that it is essential for discussion to know the identity of the person expressing an idea.

    The search giant seems to implicitly reject the idea that valid discussions can take place without proven, or provable, identity.

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    Is Anonymity Too Dangerous to Be Allowed?

    There are some influential voices saying that there is no longer a place for anonymity or even pseudoanonymity on the Internet.

    Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and other prominent figures in social media have expressed this publicly.

    In a CNBC interview in December of 2009, Schmidt said,

    "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

    At the Techonomy conference in August of 2010, then Google CEO Schmidt said,

    "The only way to manage this is true transparency and no anonymity," Schmidt said. "In a world of asynchronous threats, it is too dangerous for there not to be some way to identify you. We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demandscreenshot anonymous image from Bright Hub  it."

    Randi Zuckenberg, sister to Mark Zuckenberg and, until recently, marketing director of Facebook, expressed similar opinions in a widely reported Marie Claire panel on 7/26/2011, saying that cyberbullying would stop when people knew their real names would be attached to whatever they did online.

    “I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away... People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors."1

    There are also bills under consideration in Congress that would require ISPs to permanently keep information on users; the Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011. Aside from the fact there are already legal ways to request information on users when there is a legitimate belief they have involvement in child pornography, that information would be a tremendous -- and currently illegal -- invasion of privacy.

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    It has been my experience that people who are going to make flaming statements and insult others gregariously are just going to do it, in many different forms, on and offline. Some people enjoy forcing their opinions on everyone else, and trashing those they disagree with. Others enjoy the role of devil's advocate, or poking sticks into metaphorical ant's nests and beehives. Certainly Facebook, which has a supposedly 100% real name policy, has a lot of nasty comments and trolling taking place on people's pages.

    What do you think -- do you know of cases or people who flame away while using their own name?

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    History and Some Definitions

    It’s worth taking a look at how anonymity and pseudonyms are actually defined. Much of the discussion on Google Plus about identity and pseudonyms has a disconnect, because people using the same words mean something different while discussing concepts of anonymity and pseudoanonymity on the Internet.

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    In much of the time that the Internet, and then the World WIde Web, have been in existence, user names, or handles, were far more common than names that appear normal to a Western sensibility. There are user names that have been persistently in use for 10, 15, sometimes 20 years. Many of the user names were the only name others knew to interact with on the Internet, and even became the nicknames used in offline encounters. These user names often had extended persistence through time.

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    Many people do not understand why there could be a valid need for either anonymity or the use of pseudonyms -- I believe that the use of both is important in many circumstances.

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    Identity: Identiy has connotations to us beyond the dictionary definitions. It is also a philosophical concept.

    From the Cambridge Dictionaries Online Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:


    noun: who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group which make them different from others

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy online devotes a lot of space to the concepts of identity and persistence.

    “What does it take for a person to persist from one time to another—that is, for the same person to exist at different times? … This is the question of personal identity over time."

    From the Cambridge Dictionaries Online Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary:


    noun: when someone's name is not given or known.

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    Anonymity and pseudoanonymity are two different concepts – a point that many people seem not to grasp. They are sometimes used for similar reasons – to hide or obfuscate someone’s real-life identity. A reasonably vocal segment of various online communities believes the only reason for wanting either anonymity and pseudoanonymity is to hide while doing something wrong, or to escape consequences for actions.

    It is important to understand anonymity and pseudoanonymity are not the same thing.

    screenshot anonymous image from Google + Anonymity means the person behind the name is unknown, and has taken precautions to try and stay unknown.

    A pseudonym is the face someone chooses to reveal to the world – a face that may represent one part of someone’s life. They may take no precautions when they use a pseudonym, regarding the pseudonym as a user name. Many may wish their identities not to be public, but are comfortable revealing confirmable contact information to the overseers of the community they want to participate in.

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    Why Anonymity?

    Dissidents who are attempting reform in a totalitarian society may need to be anonymous in their interactions because they could be punished or worse by the existing authorities. Whistleblowers may need anonymity to reveal a problem without being fired or black listed. And yes, cyber-bullies may want anonymity to persecute others without fear of punishment.

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    Why Use Pseudonyms?

    The person using a pseudonym (nym) is creating a persona to interact with the world, and not necessarily with intent to make themself extremely difficult or impossible to find. Instead, a pseudonym can allow the creation of a focused identity – one used in many different types of interactions with others. A regularly used pseudonym creates a history of words and ideas, especially on the Internet, where information is difficult to erase. It is a recognizable identity that is associated with the name, and can be interacted with on a repeated basis. A pseudonym may be a nickname commonly used to identify a person, often uniquely. They have a long history of use by writers, among others, extending back to classical Greece. (Think Plato.)

    This use of a pseudonym demands persistance across time, which the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy agrees is a prerequisite of identity.

    At times, a pseudonym is used to conceal other information about a person. A pseudonym can be used in this way when protecting one’s privacy. This allows a rape victim to interact and find advice on helping with or mitigating the trauma they experienced, without informing the entire Internet that they were raped. It also allows them a way to interact with others who may learn from their experience, and help make laws or policies that either could help other rape victims, or create safer conditions for people generally.

    Parents may seek information about a child’s problems without branding their child with a tag forever. It allows gamers to have online friendships without fear they are revealing information to a stalker. And yes, it can allow a cyber-bully to bully without suffering the consequences for their actions. The right to use a pseudonym, if not intended for misconduct, is protected by law in many first world countries.

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    Pseudoanonymity often depends on a gatekeeper. The person using a pseudonym (nym) is creating an identity for the public, and likely has not gone through an elaborate series of steps to keep themselves truly anonymous. To create a lasting pseudonym in multiple interactions or spheres, the person using it will sometimes need to provide an email or a phone number to confirm that a real person is behind the name. Google does this to let someone create a Gmail account, and many websites require a verifiable email address before letting posts or comments be published. This is not the same as publishing that information to everyone.

    Still, the use of a pseudonym under those circumstances does give individuals a degree of privacy; enough to discuss personal or controversial subjects without have the association made with an offline identity, where it could harm them personally, or those close to them. And it is an individual decision to decide if you want to trust that gatekeeper with your details.

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    Are We Guilty Until Proven Innocent on the Internet?

    Individuals who create pseudonyms without the intent of fraud are not breaking US law, or European law. Pseudonyms in fact are protected. One of the reasons for this protection, the ability to make legitimate criticism without fear of reprisals, is the same freedom that Eric Schmidt is tossing away,

    "We need a [verified] name service for people. Governments will demand it."

    Yes, I am sure many governments would be thrilled! We would be hobbling our own freedoms for their benefit.

    In the US, searches can be made, phones tapped and digital information investigated with due cause and a warrant. We are innocent until proven guilty. Demanding the absolute proof of identity on the Internet before allowing us to use it is tantamount to calling all users guilty without presumption of innocence.

    Google in the past has come down on the side of individuals in South Korea, disagreeing with the governmental mandate for recording accurate personal information -- to then be available to the government. South Korea has since backed off, because some 35 million users had personal information hacked.

    The convenience for identity theft when all this mandated information is stored in a central place is a can of worms I will not try to cover in this discussion.

    The third law of the Internet could be information is created but not destroyed. There are very legitimate reasons for not wanting to give out too much information.

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    screenshot google plus sign on page from Google I began this essay thinking that the common/real name policy on Google plus was directly related to identity on the Internet. It is. However, the freedom to use pseudonyms at all is a precursor to that discussion, and needs to be considered separately. They are two different, although related, issues. I'll take issue with Google's implementation of their common name policy in a different essay.

    Let me know what you think about the freedom to comment on the Internet without fear of reprisals against you, or others connected to you, in offline life. Do you feel your freedom of speech is threatened?


  • image screenshot anonymous profile image from Google +
  • CNBC Inside the Mind of Google video
  • screenshots by author
  • Library of Congress Thomas Home Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011
  • Cambridge Dictionaries Online:
  • Technonomy
  • image screenshot Google + signup page
  • Marie Claire
  • China Daily: S Korea plans to scrap online real-name system
  • image screenshot anonymous image from Bright Hub
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  • 1 Huffington Post
  • Google + supportNames Policy
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