Internet Evolution: The War on Web Anonymity

Instead of an identification requirement, the online community is placing its faith in the self-regulating forces of the Internet. Twenty years of experience with the World Wide Web have shown that it does not necessarily lead to moral decline. In fact, the figures from South Korea suggest that the Internet even civilizes some users with time. Experienced contributors to forums write offensive comments about six times less frequently than those who rarely write comments.

The discussion culture is often tended with sophisticated filter mechanisms and evaluation systems, and many administrators act as blog monitors, taking action against rude comments. Reputation systems reward popular discussion participants, whether or not they are anonymous. The content is what counts.

But what about extremists and criminals who use anonymity to evade law enforcement? No Match For Law Enforcement It appears that if there is sufficient pressure from investigators, the much-touted principle of anonymity quickly evaporates. The arrests of many presumed members of the hacker groups "Anonymous," "LulzSec" and Germany's "No-Name Crew" prove this.

The "unmasking" of about 20 "Anonymous" activists speaks volumes. Apparently neither masks nor virtual precautions could protect the net anarchists from being apprehended. Ironically, both the real names and, in some cases, the photos of these previously faceless net activists are now publicly available.

In a chat with SPIEGEL, German hacker "Darkhammer," accused of having hacked into and disclosed customs data, boasted that he wasn't afraid of the authorities, and that only stupid people let themselves be caught. He was arrested a few days later.

There is also ample evidence to suggest that political pressure isn't necessary to force the use of real names online because users will take that step on their own. Nothing has accelerated the trend more than the success of social networking sites like Facebook, where users voluntarily reveal not only their names, but often photos, birthdays and sometimes even intimate details of their lives.

These services have turned into something resembling a digital civil registration office -- the antithesis of anonymity. This is slowly undermining a quality that also has many proven advantages, particularly for dissidents in countries with oppressive regimes. A report by the respected American Association for the Advancement of Science even concludes: "Anonymous communication should be regarded as a strong human right."

The example of media education shows what a double-edged sword the call for identification on the Internet can be, though. In one respect, Germany's Ministry of Consumer Protection, parents and data privacy advocates are in rare agreement. To protect themselves against fraud, stalking and abuse, young people should never use their real names online, they say.

It isn't easy to explain why this valuable anonymity suddenly becomes a problem after their 18th birthday.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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