In Defense of Anonymity

For the last few days, an incensed debate has been taking place on the OpenID Mailing List, regarding the purpose and value of anonymous people participating in the OpenID lists generally, and in the development of the OpenID standards specifically. One of the most heated instantiations of this has come in this thread, where many members have stated that one of the most prolific participants on the mailing list, “Shade,” shouldn’t be allowed to contribute to the work of the group, because no one could know her (well, his or her, but I’ve always thought of Shade as female) intentions or biases. One member went so far as to say that anonymity was fine for people on the periphery of the conversation, but as Shade had consumed too much of his time and attention, he was no longer finding her anonymity acceptable.

Another recent quote on the subject comes from the very influential Esther Dyson, who said in a recent interview that anonymity on the Internet “really encourages bad behavior,” and that like abortion, “Everybody should have the right to it, but it’s not something one wants to encourage.”

The response to both of these viewpoints has not been what I would have hoped– open outrage and calls for public apologies, that is. Instead, everyone seems to have nodded in agreement– on the OpenID lists, a few people (like Eddy Nigg) have attacked Shade fairly viciously, not merely content with attacking anonymity.

Why do we need real names on the Internet? What value does it give? I have one pseudonym I use essentially everywhere, and since I’ve used it for more than 17 years, it’s been my name for nearly as long as my given name has. (It’s also supported more places, since an incredibly obnoxious number of sites are unwilling to accept “special characters,” like apostrophes, not just in screen names but in full names as well– is the airline industry completely unfamiliar with Ireland? Really?) So as a cloak of anonymity, it’s not much– but it’s not meant to be. When I wish to remain anonymous, however, I maintain that right– and accordingly, have other email addresses, and other domains, that I can use for that purpose.

Ideally, I should be able to participate fully on the Internet as an anonymous/pseudonymous individual, because (setting aside e-commerce at the moment) nearly nothing needs a real name. There’s no advantage to me of giving real identifying information to every Tm, Dck, and Hrry (their Web 2.0 names, complete with a lack of vowels) on the tubes; they have no need to the information, and no right to it.

More and more companies, though, are asserting a right to true identity, regardless; in one recent case, a woman was convicted of a crime for giving a false name to MySpace. Because MySpace, clearly, is a bastion of true-name discourse on the Internet.

As I’ve written about before, I think people are already giving up too much personal data on the Internet. So it’s hardly new for me to be annoyed at attacks on anonymous participation. Discussing the situation with a friend, however, pointed out something I hadn’t considered as a reason for real names in discussion groups (such as the OpenID group): people don’t have the time to separate signal from noise by really considering every nuance of every message, and so they use the names to do enough research to get a sense of reputation– so they can figure out who’s worth listening to.

While it’s not ideal, this doesn’t seem like a unique use case, and so perhaps we could deflect some of the criticism of anonymity– that people can’t trust the intentions and motivations of the hidden users, or in my friend’s case, they simply want to filter out the crazies before giving up their valuable time to their comments– with a reputation score. Is it possible to create a reputation score that can be effectively shielded from gaming by legions of anonymous (or even known) griefers, that can still provide value to both named and pseudonymous users?

I believe it is, and my next blog post will address how I think we can do it.