Anonymity and Forced Identity: On Real ID

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Arguing on the internet is like trying to give a cat a bath. Whenever you finally seem to have someone cornered with evidence and superior reasoning, they somehow squirm out and reset the stand-off as if nothing had just occurred. We’ve all experienced that frustration of “winning” an e-debate only to realize that, since it’s on the internet, no one ever has to admit they were wrong. They simply move on, more often than not restarting the same argument hours or days later. It’s intensely frustrating for people who don’t understand that there’s no winning beyond appreciating the rush of the in-the-moment zing against some nasty internet troll. With that in mind, I understand the temptation to demand a way to hold people accountable for what they do and say online.

“Rogue elements in any hashtag affair will always take delight in muddying the waters and flinging bile in order to ruffle the feathers of the professionally offended.”

Many of us embroiled in the GamerGate consumer revolt against corruption in games journalism and the games industry have seen just how quickly facts can be twisted to fit a narrative. Rogue elements in any hashtag affair will always take delight in muddying the waters and flinging bile in order to ruffle the feathers of the professionally offended. It’s no surprise that as a result of this, there is a renewed call by people such as Wil Wheaton to try to solve the problem by forcing people to tie their real names to their online identities.

Their argument is steeped in the assumption that people will behave themselves if their real world lives and reputations are tied to their e-statements. It’s an interesting idea, and at first glance an appealing one. We’ve all been in a position where we wished some troll had to spend the rest of his life wearing his idiotic statements around his neck like a scarlet letter. But as with any idea based in emotion and lacking reflection, a type of system that forces the user to identify themselves on the internet is rife with pitfalls and minefields of unintended consequences.

One such proposition in recent memory was Blizzard’s ‘Real ID’. The primary stated benefit of Real ID, that of tying of trolls to their real names, is also the biggest drawback of the concept. Exposing everyone’s names will open the door for the very trolls you’d be aiming to stifle to more easily expand their abuse and harassment into the real world. While internet-savvy trolls seem to be quite able to find information on their targets already, there’s still a price for making it that much easier for them. Privacy, even if just a username, protects the innocent as well as the guilty. In order to justify removing the protection for everyone, it is necessary to demonstrate that the resulting good far outweighs the bad. Unfortunately, that has not been demonstrated by any Real ID advocates.

When Blizzard Entertainment proposed a Real ID system across their Battle.net service, they were unprepared for the backlash they received from their customers. That they seemed honestly shocked by the outcry only served to verify the suspicions of their customers that the Real ID architects hadn’t sufficiently considered the full consequences of their actions. Even after backing away from the position and abandoning Real ID, there was a palpable cooling of open discourse in the various Blizzard gaming communities.

“Privacy, even if just a username, protects the innocent as well as the guilty.”

It’s not even necessary to stay online to see a shift away from allowing open discussion of ideas and even respectful disagreement. Across the political spectrum, there have been examples of people who aren’t just mocked for what they say, but actively persecuted and attacked for those statements. While I did not support the Proposition 8 Gay Marriage initiative in California a few years ago, I was appalled by the actions of those in opposition to expose, vilify, and dehumanize those who signed the proposition. Using a mob to attack those who state their support or opposition to a proposed piece of legislation is wrong and it undermines direct political action.

Forced identification has often proved itself a dangerous precedent to set, as seen by the exposure of gun owners by Gawker in New York. It was an act so poorly thought out that it served to create a road map for criminals, and it jeopardized people with protection orders by re-exposing them to their stalkers and abusers. After the damage had already been done, in an utterly pointless act of consolation, government officials allowed gun owners the option to ‘opt-out’ of the plan. However by that point, it was already too late. Every tech savvy person knows that once information is out on the internet, it never goes away.

The arguments against Real ID are as numerous as they are overwhelming. I wouldn’t presume to bore you with the explanations of why governments and large corporations love tracking everything you say and do online. Most of those are common sense explanations, and, as previously mentioned, we’ve all had those arguments before, repeatedly, at great length, and whether we wanted to have them or not. Instead I would rather offer my point of view as an educator who has experienced the importance of privacy in my personal and professional life.

“I don’t think Wil Wheaton or any of his supporters want to destroy free discourse on the internet. Unfortunately, it’s the rest of us who have to deal with the consequences of these utopian ideas.”

In my years as a teacher, there have on occasion been students in my class with protection orders against abusers. Sometimes those orders protect students from relatives, former friends of the family, and even parents themselves. The laws that exist to protect these kids from their abusers are as essential as their situations are terrifying. It is chilling to hear the stories, sometimes told in passing bits and pieces, about how they can’t be typical kids who do typical kid things because there is someone horrible out there who wishes to harm them. They don’t get to experience the world of a kid who doesn’t have to worry about their name being accidentally published in a school newsletter, who doesn’t have to step aside when the class gets their picture taken for the local newspaper. Establishing Real ID takes these kids and cuts them off from yet another opportunity to live online lives free from that constant threat.

I’d like to believe that Real ID advocates want to help improve the internet. It’s tough to let go of the idea that people are essentially good at heart, even if sometimes horribly misguided. I don’t think Wil Wheaton or any of his supporters want to destroy free discourse on the internet. Unfortunately, it’s the rest of us who have to deal with the consequences of these utopian ideas. After ten thousand largely innocent people were declared to be some of the worst harassers on Twitter by the IGDA this past weekend, it’s now more clear than ever that people who say that they want what is best for you online need to be looked at with skepticism.

If we do not act with restraint and an abundance of reflection when it comes to changing how the internet functions, we risk causing damage that cannot be undone. However, trying to hold Real ID advocates accountable may end up being pointless after all, as we all know that no one ever admits to being wrong on the internet.

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