Privacy, Anonymity, and Civility

Nearly everyone I know (myself included) believes that privacy on the Internet is important. I've noticed, however, that until recently, I unconsciously classified "anonymity" as a kind of privacy and so considered it an automatic right of Internet users. But the more anonymity I see on the Internet, the less I like it. Perhaps we need to rethink the level of anonymity that the Internet offers.

Privacy on the Web
Privacy seems like a no-brainer when dealing with financial information or other data that someone might use to steal your identity. If I use a credit card to buy something from your Web site, I'm entitled to be certain that someone else won't intercept the information I submit from my Web browser to your Web server and that once the information reaches your Web server, it'll remain safe and secure. And if you buy something from my Web site and I ask for your mother's maiden name, your birth date, and what you called your favorite dog--all things that would make impersonating you online easier—I have a strong responsibility to ensure that the data is secure.

But what about privacy policies for other types of Web interactions? Suppose someone signs up to receive product information or to contribute to an online forum and in the process, reveals his or her name, job title, and email address: What responsibility does the Web site's owner have to keep that information private? The answer to that question is, by Internet custom, a matter for negotiation. Web sites typically post a privacy policy and, in the absence of one, don't (at least in the United States) have any real obligations to keep the user's information private. This approach seems fair to me: I go to your Web site seeking information; you want me to identify myself to some degree, and in return, you promise to use that personal information only in some restricted way. I look at the quantity and quality of the product information that you'll provide me and compare it with the amount of personal information that you want me to give you. Then, on the basis of that evaluation, I decide whether to sign up for your information, forum membership, or other service. (I find it infuriating when sites such as Amazon.com get away with simply changing their information-use policy, but that's another story, or rather another bit of legislation, that needs consideration.)

These e-commerce and membership/privacy policies seem fair to individuals using the Web, and our notions of Web privacy probably grew out of them. However, I think many Web sites are wrong to extend complete anonymity to their users—an anonymity that has become, in my opinion, a license to libel.

Anonymity and Civility
Visit Amazon.com, Buy.com, PriceGrabber.com, Epinions.com, or just about any other site that sells merchandise or points you to a retailer and you'll see online reviews and ratings of various products. Seeing both kisses and hisses about the same product is not unusual—as they say, if people agreed on everything, we wouldn't have horse races or ball games. Unfortunately, the savage and uncivil language that some people use to post negative reviews is also not unusual. Look closely, however, and you'll see that almost all the mudslingers are hiding behind some anonymous handle such as d00d432 or that most of the truly vicious Amazon.com reviews are from "A Reader in the US." Or try to follow a discussion in a newsgroup or threaded forum: The character-disparaging attacks are far more likely to come from users with a secret identity. In contrast, contributors who aren't worried about revealing their names usually provide discussion, comments, and reviews that are either positive or negative—but constructive.

Some people insist on complete anonymity because they fear that the subjects of their commentary might track them down and exact reprisals, whether deserved or not. I'm reminded of the scene in the end of the movie "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," in which Jay and Silent Bob use their newly acquired riches to track down and beat up everyone who's ever posted a negative comment about them on the Internet. Although the scene might have been a bit of wish fulfillment for director Kevin Smith, I'm having trouble envisioning the marketing manager for Minolta USA stalking and assaulting the guy who slammed the DiMAGE 7 on PriceGrabber.com.

I don't really blame the vitriol-slingers: In American media, the indignantly angry are portrayed as heroic, and our high schools certainly don't offer courses in civility or constructive criticism. Instead, I suggest that administrators who run Web sites that host forums and reviews require that their contributors identify themselves. I'm not suggesting censoring any conversation—just cutting out the masked men. Sure, this approach has problems. For instance, what constitutes "identify" and what about sites that cover topics where anonymity is necessary; no question, those are issues that would need discussion. But removing the anonymous from most online forums and review sites would, I think, lead to more information and less flaming. Ad hominem attacks and vicious public spleen-venting accomplish nothing and drive many people away from our online community.

I don't think asking contributors for a real name and perhaps country of origin, no more than that, is asking too much, particularly if it makes Internet conversation the property of us all, rather than the property of the loudest, angriest, and most uncivil. Of course, that's just my opinion. I suspect that some of you will have opinions (he said, with a wink), and I look forward to hearing them. As always, thanks for giving my thoughts a listen!

TAGS: Security
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