Real names, real problems: Pseudonymity under siege

Pseudonymity, part of Net culture since its early beginnings, may become a quaint relic of the early Internet

Image credit: Flickr/Stephanie Chaves

Elsa S. is leading a double life. By day, she's an attorney with a small Internet company. At night, she slips into a form-fitting latex catsuit and pursues her other life as fetishist. For several years she published a popular podcast on the topic.

So it's not surprising that Elsa maintains two very public – but very different – personae online. Some of her vanilla friends and colleagues know about her kink identity; some don't. That's fine with Elsa, so long as she can control who knows what.

Elsa is not her real name. It's not even her real pseudonym. She asked that both be excluded from this story, to make it harder to connect the dots between the two.

"I don't want people finding out about me in a way I didn't intend and then using it against me," she says. "Being a fetishist also makes you a more interesting target to cyber-stalkers. Most of the people in the kink community are nice, but it only takes one jerk to ruin your life."

But Elsa's ability to keep her two identities separate is eroding. Major social networks now require users to supply real names or risk having their accounts deleted. To reign in trolls, popular sites have vowed to verify the identities of registered users. As online services incorporate facial recognition and other biometric technologies to identify users, the notion of participating online using a name not found on your government-issued ID may become a quaint relic of the early Internet.

Pseudonymity, part of Net culture since its early beginnings, is under siege.

Internet detox

As any Netizen can attest, online discussions can quickly devolve into a cesspool of toxic waste. Spammers and comment trolls often overwhelm the conversation. Multiple studies have shown that people say things under the cloak of anonymity they would never say using their real names.

So last month the Huffington Post decided to remove the cloak, announcing plans to "independently verify" the identity of each registered user. In a blog post explaining the decision, managing editor Jimmy Soni wrote:

"It's simple and painless to decry online toxicity; it's harder and more important to do something about it. We at The Huffington Post have chosen to take an affirmative step by verifying the identities of new commenter accounts. We won't eliminate every last note of negativity and nastiness on the site, but we believe this change will offer the guarantee of a gut check."

Soni did not elaborate on how the site planned to verify identities, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

HuffPo is hardly alone. Last July, GateHouse Media, a chain of community newspapers in eastern Massachusetts, banned anonymous comments. In February, the Miami Herald did the same. In May 2012, the State of New York considered legislation that would require Web publishers to remove anonymous comments upon request unless their authors agreed to attach verifiable names to their statements. That bill has yet to come up for a vote.

Besides attempting to enforce a more genteel Internet, the push for "real names" has a more commercial motivation. Attaching a legal name to a screen name can open up a trove of commercial and government data about an individual. The more verifiable the identity, the more valuable it becomes to advertisers and e-tailers.

Users have pushed back, but with only limited success. After introducing a hard line "real names" policy for Google+ in 2011 – inciting what became known as the "Nymwars" – Google softened its stance on pseudonyms, but only to a degree. Non-legal names are allowed on the social network, provided the user can prove it is "an established online identity with a meaningful following." When asked to define "meaningful," a Google spokesperson replied, "we don't actually quantify" that.

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