Internet Evolution: The War on Web Anonymity

Feelings of public outrage run high when it comes to issues like cyber-bullying, hate mail and insults, as was recently the case with iShareGossip, a German site where students could anonymously insult their fellow students. Some time ago, a site called Rotten Neighbor triggered similar feelings of outrage. It enabled people to take their neighborhood disputes online. Of course, those who unloaded their vicious remarks on the site remained anonymous, while the victims of their abusive language were clearly identified.

Limiting Anonymity

Last autumn Axel Fischer, a member of Germany's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the chairman of the parliamentary commission on "Internet and Digital Society," called for a "ban on disguises" in the virtual world, at least for forums with political voting options, as he clarified after a storm of protest from the online community. Then Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) also addressed the issue several times, saying that "limitless anonymity" should not exist on the Internet, where the authorities must be able to identity people who break the law.

De Maizière also launched two projects intended to facilitate secure identification on the Internet -- albeit on a voluntary basis at first -- the supposedly tamper-proof digital mail system "De-Mail" and the new identity card.

But in the anarchic world of the Internet is it even possible to implement a large-scale, binding identification requirement? A look at events in South Korea offers some answers to this question.

Ironically, this journey has led to more surveillance in the Asian country, where the Internet euphoria is among the most rampant in the world. In 2008, the 39-year-old Korean actress Choi Jin-sil was bombarded with hateful tirades online. No longer able to bear the attacks, she hung herself.

The nation was shocked. The conservative government reacted with the broader application of a law originally created only for election campaigns. Under the "Real Name Verification Law" anyone who wishes to post comments or videos online must identify themselves with their "resident registration number," a 13-digit unique identifier issued by the government.

A Civilizing Effect Currently the law applies only to websites with more than 100,000 users per day. Some website operators are probably quite pleased with the regulation, because the real names of customers are extremely valuable in the advertising industry.

Media researcher Daegon Cho of the US-based Carnegie Mellon University wanted to know what lessons could be learned from the Korean experiment. Does the constraint of having to reveal one's true identity online have a moderating effect on the Internet community?

It does, as Cho discovered. The Identification Law has a civilizing effect on the Internet's verbal offenders -- though only in moderation. Those who rarely post comments online were especially likely to temper their emotions. In this group, the number of comments containing "swear words and anti-normative expressions" fell from 27 to 20 percent. Nevertheless, the majority of troublemakers continued to swear without restraint under their real names. Besides, instructions for circumventing identification requirements have been available online for some time, and when in doubt, troublemakers can always use foreign servers.

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