Information’s Freedom and Defense

Sorry about the delay; the physical world caught me up with some recent events that kept me away.

Gaming on the Internet is big business; it’s regularly ranked among the top, if not the top, modern industries and they try to keep it that way. Every day, hundreds of millions of users log onto some MMORPG or networked FPS, often paying subscription fees in one form or another. That said, although these throngs of users are the lifeblood of many a company, they’re not exactly viewed with respect or kindness, unlike, say, car owners. On the forums and threads that accompany online games, discussions can and often do get downright nasty. Flame wars, threats, and other puerile behavior is extremely common.

The funny thing is that this kind of behavior is hardly ever seen in the physical world except by sociopaths. The cause is anonymity on the Internet: otherwise decent people turn into corrupted abusers of speech and rules, presumably because their afforded anonymity gives them freedom to act without reprisal or retribution. The same effect can be seen in drivers on the freeway, when people drive more aggressively in cars because they’re harder to see. The combination of anonymity with general childishness makes it a hassle for administrators and moderators to maintain decency on the Internet, to say little.

Enter Blizzard’s recent decision to enforce the use of real names on forum posts. With their recent Real ID system of logging information about their users, they put into place a plan to use users’ real names in posts on the forum, among other related changes. The primary reason was because “the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild”. Using real names would “lift the veil of anonymity” and hopefully make things run better and more decent on the forums. Besides, as the owners and managers of massive services, doing so was entirely in their power as the last word.

But then came the backlash. Thousands of users contacted Blizzard decrying their decision, some with well-formed arguments, some with the usual drivel they post in guarded anonymity that Blizzard was trying to fix in the first place. So, after deliberating a bit more, Blizzard went back and decided to keep things the way they are, using handles instead of real names. They said that using real names “was not needed” and let their users be satisfied by this decision.

Some of the arguments used against the use of real names could be refuted, but one stands out in particular: that anonymity protects users from backlash in the physical world. Given that we live in a fairly conservative society, it’s not uncommon for people to be dealt punishment, demotion, or other backlash for the things they say or post online, even in other social roles that don’t pertain to their punishment. Or, perhaps, the distinction between an online persona and a physical one would become blurred; backlash against transgendered characters (e.g. Sally the Paladin playing under the real name Steve) or harassment of female users would also be a significant risk in using real names.

A similar situation in the physical world may be seen in the recent judicial cases on same-sex marriage in the United States. In 2009, the state of Washington put to the vote a bill to provide benefits to same-sex marriages equal to those in different-sex marriages. Measures and petitions were made on both sides of the debate, which, as legal and government-submitted documents, become public record. However, the managers of the bills against same-sex marriage pushed to have the names supporting their movement remain anonymous and protected to protect their supporters from harm. Their claim was eventually taken up to the Supreme Court, which, in an 8-1 ruling, allowed their names to remain anonymous provided that they can show that they would in fact be at significant risk of harm. Perhaps surprisingly, Justice Scalia railed against such a decision, saying that “[r]equiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed”.

The whole debate between anonymity and taking responsibility over one’s actions is ultimately moot, since with enough tracking one can almost always link a username on some forum to its corresponding user. That said, people are debating between one’s right to privacy and others’ right to hold one to accountability. I contend that the two do not relate on the same playing ground. Instead, to me, privacy is the ability to keep things not made public from the public eye (such as one’s activities on their local host without releasing it to a server, or in a bedroom with the curtains closed), while accountability is taking ownership of one’s actions in the public eye. Blizzard’s, and other server’s, forums are often publicly available on the Internet, and thus any posts made on them, unless the server is protected from being only viewed, should be considered a matter of public record and enforce their users to accept what they’ve done and said. Privacy doesn’t apply here unless they’re conversing in private messages, not forum posts.

The Internet has a long, long history of anonymity, and some may argue that most of the intellectual activity on the Internet was made possible because of it. I disagree.

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