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 Rejecting Anonymity

Rejecting Anonymity, Making Authors Accountable

October 18, 2010

Since it’s birth the Internet has relied upon the interaction of its users for content – now social media and Web 2.0 technologies have propelled user generated content to the forefront, and concern is mounting over the impact of allowing people to post material online anonymously.

Reuters recently became the latest site to prohibit anonymous comment, although how effective the new posting rules are remains to be seen, as there is seemingly nothing to stop someone registering an account using a false name.  The anonymous nature of the internet presents a whole host of problems to sites which rely on user generated content, especially where the volume of material submitted is so great that effective moderation isn’t practical.  By letting users upload videos without verifying their identity, Youtube has provided a platform that is regularly used to distribute pirated content; many message boards are plastered with abusive, hateful comments from anonymous posters; and anonymity is more than likely a factor contributing to ‘low quality’ discussion and information online.

However, the anonymous nature of the net has also been leveraged by Wikileaks to encourage the submission of sensitive information; it is arguable that the absence of repercussions leads to greater honesty online; and there are many cases where anonymity is necessary.  In defence of online anonymity Andrew Alexander of the Washington Post writes:

For every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating. Anonymity provides necessary protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude identifying themselves. And even belligerent anonymous comments often reflect genuine passion that should be heard.

 Reuters are far from alone in their efforts to curb anonymous posting – Amazon encourages people to use their real names, verified by cardholder details, when writing reviews because they believe that material attributed this way will be of higher quality: since an author willing to sign his or her real-world name on a piece of content is essentially saying “With my real-world identity, I stand by what I have written here.”

Blizzard, the publisher of the blockbuster game Starcraft 2 released earlier this year, now requires users to post under their real names in community forums:

Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before.

In light of potential liability for libellous comment appearing on their pages, website operators have more to worry about than the quality of user generated content, and while anonymity online is not going away any time soon, we may be witnessing the beginning of a trend towards accountability for otherwise anonymous posters.