'Nymwars' debate over online identity explodes
Nov 17, 2011 (San Jose Mercury News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Who has the right to decide how you're known on the Internet -- you, or the online service you're using? That simmering question, which erupted with the launch of the new Google (GOOG)+ social network this summer, rolled into a boil this week with two high-profile developments.
First, Facebook decided to enforce its "real names only" policy against internationally known author Salman Rushdie, changing his page -- without his consent -- to the name on his passport, Ahmed. Next, the Justice Department told
Congress that it needs the ability to prosecute people who provide false information to websites with the intent to harm others, stirring fears across cyberspace that people might be busted for lying about their weight and age on Match.com.
The two unrelated events brought into full public view the "nymwars," the online debate known by its Twitter hashtag. The debate focuses on the notion that people online should have the freedom to choose how they want to identify themselves.
As Facebook has grown in popularity and prevented its 800 million members from using pseudonyms, many users have objected, saying the social network is limiting the Internet's historic role as a
place for experimentation and creativity. Without the freedom to use pseudonyms, they argue, that creativity is threatened by retaliation, citing dissidents living in totalitarian regimes or a gay teenager living in a small town.
The latest flare-up of the nymwars "really highlights the importance of the debate," said Jon Pincus, co-chairman of a computer science conference in San Jose last year that proposed a "bill of rights" for social network users -- including the right to use a pseudonym.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says using a pseudonym or having multiple identities online reflects a lack of integrity. Some identity experts had hoped Google's new social network would offer a promising alternative.
But when Google+ launched this summer, it also required real names and suspended the accounts of people who tried to use a pseudonym, touching off the loud online debate.
Google said requiring real names promotes a civil online discourse. But identity advocates say Google and Facebook benefit financially through better target advertising when people are identified by their real names, and argue that the freedom to be unknown is important in any society.
"In real life, we present different facets of ourselves to different people," said Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If you are a teenager living in a small town and you are gay, you might want a small number of people to know that, but you might not want your classmates to know, or your parents to know."
Rushdie's run-in with Facebook's "real names" policy played out Monday on Twitter, after Facebook deactivated the novelist's page because of doubts about his identity. Facebook, Rushdie said on Twitter, forced him to submit his passport, then changed his page to "Ahmed Rushdie" to reflect the official document.
"They have reactivated my FB page as 'Ahmed Rushdie' in spite of the world knowing me as Salman. Morons. @MarkZuckerbergF? Are you listening?" Rushdie fumed Monday on Twitter. "Where are you hiding, Mark? Come out here and give me back my name!"
After Rushdie's Twitter followers joined in to criticize Facebook, the social network changed the writer's page back to "Salman Rushdie." Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, in testimony before Congress on Tuesday, the Justice Department said it wants to retain the ability under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act to prosecute people who provide false information online with the intent to harm others. The Justice Department says it would use that power only in select cases, such as a recent case where it prosecuted a woman who used a MySpace account under a fake name to bully a 13-year-old girl who eventually committed suicide.
"Let me be very clear that DOJ is in no way interested in bringing cases against people who lie about their age on a dating site or anything of the sort. We don't have time or resources to do that," Richard Downing, the department's deputy computer crime chief, told a House subcommittee.
But identity rights experts like Galperin say the government is asking for too much power.
The nymwars debate is even more important, they say, because Facebook, Google and Twitter are trying to become people's identity passports to the Internet, allowing people to use credentials from those services to sign on to hundreds of thousands of other sites and services. Twitter does allow people to use a pseudonym.
Google+ "could have really challenged Facebook on what it means to be a member of a social network," said Chris Poole, an influential Internet entrepreneur who is the founder of the online social sites 4chan and Canvas, which allow users to post content anonymously or under a pseudonym. "They just kind of just copied all the things Facebook does wrong. They didn't try to re-imagine: What does identity mean in 2011, on the Internet and off the Internet, and what does Facebook do wrong that we can really do right?"
Google recently said it would reverse itself and allow people to use pseudonyms, a change that could come before the end of the year.
Kaliya Hamlin opened a Google+ account under her first name last summer, only to have Google suspend it. The Bay Area online identity and privacy advocate, who uses the pseudonym "Identity Woman," said she simply didn't want to use her ex-husband's name.
The nymwars debate "is about the right to choose your own name," she said.
Vic Gundotra, the top social networking executive at Google, said the company is now working on the "very complex technical things we need to do" to safeguard someone using a Google+ pseudonym from having that identity connected to a real-world name they might use on another Google service, Gundotra said.
"It's tricky," Gundotra said of implementing the pseudonym policy, "and we're going to have to be thoughtful about it."
Contact Mike Swift at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/swiftstories and view his Google+ profile.
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