[This was originally posted on Google+ (https://plus.google.com/117903011098040166012/posts/asuDWWmaFcq) where it went viral for a while. It’s still my most popular post. Since then of course Google finally gave up on their “real names” policy. Turns out it didn’t actually improve the quality of discussion at all–and it hurt people. Facebook, OTOH, still deletes accounts using pseudonyms, and it continues to be a tool of attackers to shut down victims.]
Google has said that they plan to “address” the issue of pseudonymity in the near future. I hope that these thoughts and experiences may help inform that decision.
Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
———— 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission
This whole persona/pseudonym argument may seem like a tempest in a teapot, but the fact is, the forum for public discourse is no longer the town hall, or newspaper, or fliers on the street. It is here on the Internet, and it is happening in communities like this, hosted by private sector companies. Freedom of speech is not guaranteed in these places. As +Lawrence Lessig once said,“the code is the law.” The code that Google applies, the rules they set up now in the software, are going to influence our right to speak out now and in the future. It is imperative that we impress upon Google the importance of providing users with the same rights (and responsibilities) as exist in the society that nurtured Google and brought about its success.
I’m going to try to summarize the discussion as I’ve seen it over the past few weeks. Since this is a long post (tl;dr), here’s a description of what’s coming so if you want, you can skip to the section that you’re interested in.
First I’m going to address some red herrings; arguments that actually have no bearing on pseudonyms. I will explain why I think we should be having this discussion about a company’s product. I’ll explain, through painful personal disclosure, the experience of close friends, and other examples, why someone might want to use a pseudonym. Then I will address the arguments I have heard against pseudonyms (and some of them are quite valid), and what some alternatives might be.
I apologize for the length of this post, I know it could be trimmed.
That’s an interesting distinction. One can understand the practical aspects. Those who can afford to hire armed security forces presumably can afford to keep them healthy and fed. And those forces (perhaps) are less likely to engage in illegal activities than non-incorporated forces. But fundamentally, this means that people with money can protect their property by means that violate the law, but people without money cannot. Whether the decision is valid or not, the result is that the poor will lose more than the rich.
When was it that everyone started to talk about
rights, and forgot all about responsibilities?
[A note from the future, in 2017. I was right. I didn’t get more conservative, and they grew up safe and awesome. One’s editing movies. The other’s working QA at a robotics company. Let’s hear it for sensible parenting.]
Before I begin, let me set
some context. I’m a parent, I have two terminally cute daughters; one six, the
other four. I’ve heard that the number one correlation between sexual conservatism
and other factors is whether a person has daughters. Maybe things will be different
when they reach adolescence, but so far my values haven’t changed.
So now we have had a summit,
and everyone’s talking about how to protect the rights of
parents on the internet.
This is apparently something that greatly concerns many parents,
from a reading of the statistics,
I can only assume that it’s primarily a concern of parents who are not
on the internet, since those that are, aren’t even using the available
tools. But I don’t mean to belittle the core desire–parents
want to make sure that children’s exposure to new concepts and people is
consistent with their beliefs, whether that exposure is on the internet, the
street, or the corner store.
And that’s the fundamental issue I have with all this ruckus. The
internet doesn’t exist as a thing, it isn’t something that’s safe or not
safe. The internet is a community of people, and the things you
have to teach your kids in this community are the same as the things you teach
them in your own. Be polite, don’t interrupt, don’t speak unless
you have something to say, stay away from the seamier parts of town, and of
course, don’t go off alone with strangers. Those are values I try and teach my
kids. If I haven’t gotten them across by the time they learn to
send email, it’s probably too late anyway. But these values are not
the internet–I expect them to be applied online, and down at the
I think I know where things went wrong. Some parents thought that if
their kid was staying home in front of the computer, that they were safe
and could be left alone–just like when they were sitting in front
of the television. They were wrong of course, the two mediums are not
comparible–there is far more violence and sex on television.
But on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. What good does it do to teach
your kids right from wrong, if someone can pretend to be a teenage soulmate,
when they are actually a lecherous old man? There is some validity in this,
but frankly, anyone who has spent much time in online communities very quickly
learns that identity is both central to, and yet completely apart from, the
online experience. I spent my freshman year in college hooked on “the con”,
as it was called by those of us with access to Dartmouth’s
Time Sharing System years before AOL’s forums and IRC. We all knew
the story of the guy that gets all excited about this great girl he’s been chatting
with for hours, only to walk over to his roommate’s cubby to tell him the news–and
find out he’s been chatting with him all this time. The notion of an
online identity, or identities, that is separate from your physical one is fundamental
to the system–our children will understand that long before their parents.
This isn’t the dark side of the internet, this is one of the liberating things
about the internet. (Note that having multiple identities is not the same as
being anonymous, I’ll talk more about that some other time–if you want some
mandatory reading on that subject, check out “The Transparent Society : Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between
Privacy and Freedom” by David Brin.)
“But…,” (says my wife), “it is different, you think they
are safe because they are in the house. With other communities, you know where
they are.” Well, one can hope, but the teen
pregnancy rate in the U.S. would seem to argue otherwise. The fact of the
matter is that, the older your kids get, the less control you have over them.
That’s why I see this whole thing very differently. This isn’t an issue of parent’s rights, it’s a question of parent’s responsibilities, and that’s
a word that seems to be very much out of favor recently. All the internet is
doing is bringing home that our job as parents is not to control, but to guide.
Here is FamilyPC’s “Internet Bill of Rights” proposal, with my responses. They asked if they
could publish by responses, so if you see it in a physical copy, let me
know which issue.
Parental blocking software should be integrated into every Internet
ones? Ones meant for developer use only? Ones running on PDAs that
have the necessary memory or CPU? No. If the demand is there, the
will provide it. Protection of children is the responsibility of
not something that can be regulated.
Web site creators must
sites in an industry-standard way that is recognizable by the browser
(for now this means using RSACi or SafeSurf or PICS).
Aside from being
unenforcable, there is no need to do this. If people stop going to
sites, then sites will rate themselves. The fact of the matter is the
majority of sites that rate themselves are adult sites–they don’t
minors on their sites. The rest of sites don’t have the time or
to rate themselves.
An arbitration board should be created to
discrepancies in site ratings.
That implies that ratings have the
of law. Ratings are going to be relative my definition. An independent
board cannot be created to legislate free speech. If we were
signs on a front yard, this wouldn’t stand up in court for a
Webmasters who do not comply with voluntary ratings should not be
on the major search services.
Absolutely not. This restricts adult
to sites, never mind access to sites outside of the United States.
engines are already beginning to offer alternative, rated-only search
facilities. There is no need to legislate this.
will be monitored to keep them safe; monitoring can be human or
If you are worried about what your children say to whom, then
them. Don’t forget to tape phone conversations and follow them to the
school bathroom as well. Chat room monitoring is neither practical or
Web sites must fully disclose what they do with
collected from people who register at their sites.
This is a
that has nothing to do with the specific issue you are addressing
Advertising must be clearly labeled as advertising and kept
from editorial content.
If online shopping is involved,
must require parental permission prior to purchase. Parents will be
to cancel an order mistakenly sent by a minor at no charge to the
The standards here should be the same as they are anywhere else.
a credit card is deemed to be an indication of adult status.
advertiser communicates with a child by e-mail, the parent should
and should have the option, with each mailing, to discontinue
If you want to disallow communications with children by advertisers, I
might consider that a good goal. However, “on the internet no one
your a dog”. It’s impossible to tell whether you are communicating
a child on the internet. As for the ability to remove yourself from
mailings–go for it, but this is a general issue, not one specific to
Frankly I find the whole concept of a
Bill of Rights” to be misguided. First we need to construct a Parent’s
Bill of Responsibilities. For the past 15 years my closing email
has been the same. And every year I feel it is more and more
“I’m not sure which upsets me more; that people are so unwilling to
responsibility for their actions, or that they are so eager to