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Hi, My Name Is …

When you interact with others online, is it better to be anonymous or to use your real name?  Today, a diversity of social network services gives you the choice between anonymity or real names.  But some advocates for free expression want to eliminate that choice.

For those who want to know who their friends are, we have services like Facebook, and for those who’d prefer to remain anonymous when ranting or organizing, we have networks like Twitter.  Choices like these allow users, advertisers, political activists, and entrepreneurs to mix and match online services that were unimaginable a decade ago.

But this week at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Kenya, human rights advocates called for a regulatory framework that would eliminate that choice for users and for creators of online services.  The Dynamic Coalition for Internet Rights & Principles wants the IGF to embrace a new fundamental right – the right to online anonymity.   And college professor Robert Bodle presented a paper to justify this new right to online anonymity.

There’s no need to decide who’s “right” on this question – as long as those with different needs can choose among online services that treat identity differently.

I understand that anonymity is essential for activists, dissidents, and whistleblowers, but it’s not for everyone.  Anonymity’s not right for my family and me when we use Facebook or Skype to connect with friends.  It’s not right for professional networks that exist precisely so you can know the real identity of other users.  (Imagine LinkedIn with an Anonymity button).

But there’s no need to decide who’s “right” on this question – as long as those with different needs can choose among online services that treat identity differently.

Yet Bodle and many rights advocates here at IGF want governments (and intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations) to mandate that social networks like Facebook let users hide their true identities.

Bodle mocked Facebook for requiring its users to post their real names.  And he insisted that social networks like Facebook and Google+ make “Anonymous” the default for user identities, and only allow real names as an option.

My response to Bodle was to invite him to endorse anonymous networks and to start one of his own.   When I pressed him about his call for regulation, Bodle qualified by saying that only “dominant” social networks should be forced to drop their real names polices.

But didn’t Facebook became popular at least partly because it required real names?  And now that hundreds of millions of users have come to rely on real names, Bodle would force them to an anonymous model?

This is the kind of top-down, after-the-fact government regulation we’ve managed to avoid on the Internet so far.  And so far, so good, if you judge today’s light-touch approach by the innovation and variety of content and services it has fostered.

So let’s have a debate on the merits of anonymous versus real-name services.  But there’s no room in that debate for new mandates on our most innovative and popular online services.

Image from New Yorker Magazine