Archive for November, 2009

Protect Anonymous Comments Online

November 30, 2009

Requiring real names may have a significant chilling effect on free speech.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about requiring citizens to use their real names when making comments on government websites.  Further study is necessary, but our preliminary study indicates that far too many voices would be left out of a national conversation if citizens were prevented from participating anonymously.

We believe users should be able to create and control their own persistent online identities.  Identities should be persistent so that websites that allow users to rate/vote can give more weight to users that have demonstrated credibility.  Identities do not have to be connected to a legal name for several reasons.  That is what we mean by anonymous comments.

Here are other reasons why anonymous comments must be protected:

1. As of yet, there’s no enforceable solution that would work on a national level which can ensure that someone’s user name is the same as their legal name.  Half measures would just create confusion.

2. Anonymity isn’t the issue. A persistent reputation system that rewards good ideas and punishes misbehavior can solve for all the advantages of using real names, such as developing person-to-person relationships and encouraging constructive contributions.

3. Our country has a rich history of brilliant political authors writing with pseudonyms– those people had strong reasons for doing so and those reasons are just as important today.

4. Allowing pseudonyms decreases the risk of cognitive biases such as the “yes-man syndrome” where people agree with leaders even though the leader’s ideas need improvement.

5. Some people won’t participate because they cannot contradict the position of their employer. This limits out expert opinion.  We saw this with members of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps during our survey.

6. The dialogue would instantly be less inclusive because people are not used to using their real name online in discussion forums– this immediately raises a red flag and rumors start flying (refer to the controversy– whether justified or not– about the White House collecting email addresses this summer).

7. Strong, fair, transparent moderation systems should be our focus because they are absolutely necessary and can minimize the harms of abusive speech.

8. An idea should stand on its own merit; if it depends on the credentials of the author to be credible it needs more work. Building a community online that does not rely on credentials gets us much closer to a true meritocracy of ideas. Giving equal status to pseudonyms puts the focus on the idea rather than the author– this can stimulate a more honest discussion.

9. Features which develop and sustain a sense of community (such as group features and person-to-person messaging) should be our focus rather than this issue anonymity because such features will build resiliency and community norms which, in turn, are essential for fair moderation.

10. Requiring real names will have no effect on some people who are going to use a pseudonym anyway. Having them break the rules the first minute they sign up can start them off in a negative mindset accentuate their negative behavior.

11. While we can hope for the best, we have to work in the world that we live in. If an American has a name like Hussein (or many others) they will be discriminated against whether we like it or not.

12. When people exercise the freedom of the press or the freedom to assemble, they can do so anonymously. Requiring real names limits free speech.

13. Site administrators should be careful when writing participation guidelines.  Merely suggesting that users should use their real names will automatically place users with pseudonyms in second-class status.

We welcome anyone else’s thoughts on this subject.  Please feel free to comment below.