Internet Evolution: The War on Web Anonymity

The Internet has always been a refuge of anonymity. Anyone could hide behind the cloak of namelessness and express the most offensive views. Now politicians and companies -- including Google and Facebook -- want to change that.

The Avenue de l'Opéra in Paris is a respectable address, surrounded by banks, boutiques and cafés. The tenants listed on door plaques include a language school and an airline. But the name of the building's most famous tenant is not listed: Google. The global corporation values privacy -- its own privacy, at least.

"We take data protection seriously," says Peter Fleischer, Google's Global Privacy Counsel. "We don't know our users by name," he insists. "We just store anonymous identifiers, but no personal data." This is an important distinction for Fleischer, who says that Google's primary goal is to improve the accuracy of targeted advertising. According to Fleischer, the identities of the people behind the numbers are irrelevant. "We don't even want to know the names of users," he says.

These statements were made only three years ago, and yet they seem to be from a different era. In the past, the Internet was a sea of anonymity dotted with username islands, but now the relationship is being reversed. Anonymity is being declared the exception -- and a problem.

In June, Google launched a frontal attack on competitor Facebook and began testing its own social network: Google+. Suddenly Google is asking for precisely what Fleischer so vehemently declared was of no interest to the company in 2008 -- real names.

The company has repeatedly blocked the accounts of users who refuse to provide their real names instead of a pseudonym, because this is a violation of its "community standards." Those rules stipulate the following: "To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you."

Free Speech vs. Attribution

Today Google is no longer satisfied with pseudonyms, and it isn't alone. Politicians and law enforcement agencies have also declared war on anonymity, a fundamental characteristic of the Internet.

For some, anonymity is among one of the biggest strengths of the Internet, a guarantee of free speech and privacy. Others voice concerns over the "attribution problem" and see it as a key issue in the digital world that must be eliminated.

Particularly in the wake of attacks in Oslo and on Utøya Island , there is growing interest in tearing the masks off the faces of those who author radical right-wing hate blogs . Critics are calling for stronger online surveillance, an alarm button for reporting dangerous content and the reintroduction of data retention. But what use are surveillance and warning mechanisms if the authors of violent messages cannot ultimately be identified?

Last week the anti-Islamic treatises by the blogger "Fjordman," whom the Norwegian killer Anders Behring Breivik has described as his "favorite writer," made international headlines. But of course he isn't the only one hiding behind a pseudonym. Jihadist forums using crude code names seek to incite hatred and violence against "infidels," while right-wing extremists use the protection of anonymity to publish the names and addresses of members of the Antifa, or anti-fascist movement, who employ the same tactic.

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