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Gaming giant Blizzard ends online anonymity, stirs up storm

Move to force World of Warcraft and Starcraft forum posters to use real names prompts lively privacy debate

July 9, 2010 11:20 AM ET

Computerworld - Activision Blizzard Inc.'s announcement earlier this week that it will soon require that subscribers to its World of Warcraft and Starcraft forums use their real names when posting comments has sparked a lively debate on online privacy and anonymity issues.

Blizzard announced Tuesday that it will require posters to use real names in an effort to eliminate the "flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness" on its forums. "Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment [and] promote constructive conversations," the company noted.

The change is slated to take effect later this month. It does not affect previous forum posts.

The change in policy comes about two months after Blizzard implemented a system called Real ID, which links a user's in-game profile with his or her account information, including full names.

In a blog post Thursday, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) slammed Blizzard's plans to force what it called the "de-anonymization of posters" on its forums.

"To assume -- as Blizzard seems to have assumed -- that anonymity enables only 'ugly speech' is the product of a failed imagination," wrote Eva Galperin, an EFF staffer. "Anonymous speech has always been an integral part of free speech because it enables individuals to speak up and speak out when they otherwise may find reason to hide or self-censor."

Galperin noted that several other online sites, including media sites such as Yahoo Finance message boards, have tried various methods, including active moderation and ratings tools to curb problems that can stem from anonymous communications. "None of these sites has gone so far as to try eliminating anonymity entirely," Galperin contended, adding that Blizzard's move is likely to be watched closely by others.

In a blog post Wednesday, the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) joined the fray when it posited that Blizzard's move would "chill forum speech."

Requiring posters to identify themselves goes "against the very spirit of immersive gaming environments companies," Sean Brooks, a program associate for CDT noted in the blog. Many users choose to play games as a "departure from their real lives" and are unlikely to want to participate in a community where online identities "are forcibly linked to their real names" he said.

The move has also prompted a deluge of posts from Blizzard subscribers on the company's forums. As of late Thursday, one Warcraft forum alone had close to 44,000 comments spread over 2,200 pages. Other Blizzard forums such as Battle.net also carried thousands of comments on the decision.

A large number of the messages appeared to be from subscribers outraged over what they see as the privacy and security implications of posting real names.

In comment after comment, users blasted the company's decision and said that forcing gamers to use their real names on Blizzard forums would expose them to everything from needless loss of anonymity and identity theft to stalking and other forms of harassment.

Several blog sites even started posting detailed information on Blizzard employees and their family members to demonstrate what they claimed was the amount of personal information that could be easily gleaned on strangers from online sources by just using a first and last name.

Blizzard had some supporters as well.

Technology blog CrunchGear, for example, slammed the "selective outrage" over Blizzard's move and said privacy concerns were being way overstated and hypocritical. In fact, the privacy implications of Blizzard's move is no different from the privacy issues associated with the use of Twitter, Facebook, BitTorrent and Web services such as FourSquare, said CrunchGear writer Micholas Deleon.

"Don't like it, don't post there," Deleon wrote. "Nobody, not even Blizzard, is forcing you to post on its forums."

Deleon said that Blizzard will likely reverse its decision as a result of the opposition.

Blizzard did not respond to a request for comment.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at Twitter@jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed Vijayan RSS. His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Read more about Privacy in Computerworld's Privacy Topic Center.



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