Nymwars: Explaining the Resistance to Real Name Policies in Social Media

This essay was originally written for the Comp 607 course at Athabasca University, as part of the IT Management Diploma.  It is reproduced here relatively faithfully.

Abstract

The last ten years have seen the growth of social networking online. The focus of this paper is on three sites: Twitter, G+, and Facebook. Of the three, both G+ and Facebook have made efforts to become authentication gateways, encouraging users to remain logged in and use their credentials there to access other third sites, either owned by the same company or third party. They have also aggressively pushed “real name policies” that encourage (or demand) that users use real names, and not pseudonyms. The resistance to this has been colloquially referred to as the “Nymwars.” This essay considers the rise of these policies, and the implications of resistance to them. Proponents of real name policies frequently cite concerns for safety and a desire to build a more social community, blaming monikers and pseudonyms for crime and anti-social behaviour. This paper considers those arguments, and considers the cultural factors leading to resistance to real name policies, turning to early and formative articles from the ‘hacker’ community. It is the conclusion of this paper that as much as resistance to real name policies is about privacy and anonymity, it is equally about ownership and control of the internet as a public space. This essay frequently employs the word “libertarian,” and it should be read in the classic sense, to refer to individuals who believe in maximize individual autonomy and reducing the power of governments and commercial interests, not the 21st century American political movement.

Nymwars.

Fittingly, the name sounds like something out of science-fiction. The phrase would be alien without some contextual knowledge of media and technology in the twenty-first century:

“Nymwars refers to conflicts over policies mandating that users of Internet services identify themselves using appropriate legal names. The term is a neologism, a portmanteau of “pseudonym” and “wars”. The name appears to have gained prominence as the hashtag “#nymwars” on Twitter.” (“Nymwars,” 2014, para. 1)

The term was coined in 2011, likely on the Twitter social networking site, as a reaction to new policies on Google’s social network, G+. Google instituted a policy demanding that users register under their legal name, and began to ban accounts with names seemingly in violation of that policy. Unlike Facebook, which had similar policies in practice and relied on the user community to report “fake” accounts, Google employed an algorithm to seek out and disable suspicious accounts. The victims of false-positive identification famously included at least one celebrity, a Google engineer, and a host of others with unconventional or non-western names. (Galperin, 2011) The backlash to Google’s decision was immediate and dramatic, and they’ve since backed down somewhat, allowing unconventional names and established pseudonyms. If a user can provide evidence that their name is recognized publicly, they may be allowed to use it. This connects the pseudonym to a legal name, ensuring that in principle the policy has not changed. From their current policy:

 

“First and last name required: You need to provide both your first and last name for your Google+ profile so it’ll help you find people and enable people to find you. Using only one name is not permitted. You can use an initial for one of the names, but not both. For example, ‘J. Smith’ but not ‘J.S.’ If you actually have a single-part name, then you should enter it as your first name, and a simple dot (“.”) as your last name, then go through the appeals process.” (Google Support)

Social networking is dominated by three major players: Google+, Twitter, and Facebook. While Twitter does allow users to create their own names and identities, Facebook has refused to, demanding that users report pseudonyms and fake names. Facebook claims that this is done to keep their network safe:

“Facebook is a community where people use their real identities. We require everyone to provide their real names, so you always know who you’re connecting with. This helps keep our community safe.  ” (Facebook Support.)

Facebook and Google are private institutions with the right to maintain their own policies. These institutions are asking that their networks be populated by users with legal names, for the purposes of identification and safety. Proponents of the real name policies claim that they make it easier to identify users, discourage illegal behaviour, support law enforcement, and generally encourage a more responsible, accountable, and social experience. The abuses they claim anonymity encourages range from bullying and fraud to the distribution of illegal material. Why then the resistance?

Background

In 1986, an individual calling himself ‘The Mentor’ released a widely publicized document called The Hacker Manifesto. It was circulated largely among computer users and hackers, long before the internet as we know it came to exist.(Marsh, 2013.) The document was formative to hacker culture, and served as the “ethical foundation for hacking, and asserts that there is a point to hacking that supersedes selfish desires to exploit or harm other people, and that technology should be used to expand our horizons and try to keep the world free.” (Hacker Manifesto, 2014) The text is crude, and filled with an idealism and vigour that sound naive in the twenty first century. It predated the internet, but not networking, or the culture and ethos that would dominate so many of its debates:

“This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals.”(Mentor, 1986)

The contention is that computer networking created a place for dissent from the values, laws, and social norms of society. Online, users could create their own world, in a libertarian ideal, without concern for profit, law, or the identities of day to day life. This was again repeated in many places and in many ways, but notably again in 1996, in “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” by John Perry Barlow. Barlow stated that:

“Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge . Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis. But we cannot accept the solutions you are attempting to impose.”(Barlow, 1996)

Barlow’s manifesto argues for identity without form, and, like The Hacker Manifesto, a space in which dissidents could recreate the world, subject to their own values. Again, the principle is that the internet should leave behind the world’s baggage, whether they come in the form of laws, profit, or identity. Twenty years later, this sounds idealistic and, again, perhaps naive. There is a third example, this one modern. It speaks to the same ethos, and behind some modernized language, the same principles. The hacker group Anonymous, a network of individuals with a highly flexible membership and identity, has been responsible for both malicious online behaviour, and what they’ve come to refer to as “hacktivism,” another portmanteau, this one of “hack” and “activism.” From their manifesto:

“We take away the face and leave only the message. Behind the mask we could be anyone, which is why we are judged by what we say and do, not who we are or what we have. ” (Anonymous)

Some of the naivete may be gone, but the words are familiar. Again, we’re confronted with secrecy as a shield to protect openness, and libertarian ideals in the online space. In another piece, a member of the group describes their ideals in words that echo both The Hacker Manifesto and The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

“In today’s world we are seen as terrorists or at best dangerous anarchists. We’re called ‘cowards’ and ‘posers’ for hiding behind masks, but who is the real poser? We take away the face and leave only the message. Behind the mask we could be anyone, which is why we are judged by what we say and do, not who we are or what we have. We exist without nationality, skin colour or religious bias. You wage wars, lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good. Yet we’re the criminals?” (Anonymous, 2013)

Discussion

None of the writing and manifestos presented above are in any sense academic, and policy choices and political posturing, while worthy of consideration, are not easily measured for value or truth. Yet the internet has existed for twenty years now, and networking for much longer. There has been ample opportunity to prove, or disprove, what the effects of online anonymity are. So where is the proof? First, the problem of crime and law enforcement. In order to have a discussion about anonymity online, it is first necessary to distinguish between two concepts: actual (or true) anonymity, and pseudo-anonymity. True anonymity is a total masking of identity. A truly anonymous person would be nameless and untraceable. They would not have an established pseudonym or identity, and their actions would not be connected to either past behaviour, or significantly, to a “real world” or legal identity. By contrast, pseudo-anonymity is the use of a moniker for online interactions. A pseudo-anonymous individual may well have a history of activity tied to that moniker, and an entire online identity. That identity would be tied to a legal name, either through a traceable IP address, or through information registered on a website or server. (Communications of the ACM. 1996) There is, of course, huge amount of range between these points.

 

The New Yorker famously declared that, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” In the twenty one years since, the comic has received massive circulation:

Image
(Steiner, 1993)

This could be restated in a pseudo-anonymous world, to read: “on the internet, only your family, friends, and website administrators, the government, and the law enforcement know that you’re a dog.” While true anonymity would protect a user’s identity even from website administrators and law enforcement, the pseudo-anonymous may only have their information hidden from a target audience: the general internet, their family or coworkers, or perhaps the administrators of a website. For example: A user logging into Facebook under a pseudonym might be recognized by the Facebook administrators by their IP address, and by their family and friends by their behaviour, while still hiding their name from the general public. As in the cited text from Communications of the ACM, pseudo-anonymity has been proposed as a solution to crime on the internet.(Communications of the ACM. 1996) Most users on social networks can still be tied to an IP address or other identifying data, even if they choose to operate under a moniker. In the case of a rule violation or crime they would be bannable by the network administration, and traceable by law enforcement. Arguments have been made that this is precisely the kind of network we should be fostering: one where users can operate under whatever name they wish for privacy purposes, but still be held accountable by personal information that is unavailable to the public.

Pseudo-anonymity should satisfy the demands of law enforcement, but it is not a compromise that would satisfy everyone. The activists and libertarians would argue that free speech is impossible without anonymity. They cite rising internet surveillance, and media bans such as those found in Turkey and Iran, and the ‘The Great Firewall of China.’ They believe that true anonymity is necessary, and use tools to achieve it: virtual private networks, proxies, and networking tools such as Tor and Freenet. True anonymity frustrates tracking of communications, allowing free speech, and of course, crime.(Stieglitz, 2007) A platform that allows a total abdication of laws and social norms will always be a double edged sword. As much as it fails to satisfy the libertarians, pseudo-anonymity also fails to satisfy Google and Facebook. The social networking giants have argued that they are not merely trying to aid law enforcement, but also hope to create a more responsible culture on their networks. The idea that anonymity encourages antisocial behaviour is implicit in their guidelines, and in the framing of their debate. It has been argued that anonymity, and the entire concept of “invisibility” are corrupting; they allow us to exercise anti-social behaviour, free from repercussions.(Holmes, 2009) Others have suggested, using ‘space transition theory’, that the very act of logging into a network allows us to disassociate from consequences. They refer to ‘de-individualization’ and a tendency for these environments to encourage crime.(Longe, 2012) To some, this may seem like a “common sense” argument. They assume that online dis-inhibition effect is a natural response to anonymity. A popular and frequently distributed 2004 comic from the website Penny Arcade crudely referred to this as the “Greater Internet Fuck-wad Theory.” (“Penny Arcade,” 2014, para. 22) People seem to accept the dis-inhibition argument as common sense, as colourfully illustrated in the comic:

Image

(Gabriel, 2004)

Opponents of anonymity are quick to remind us that anonymous individuals are more likely to commit crimes. The tendency for crimes to be committed anonymously is almost childishly obvious: most individuals committing crimes will try to avoid being caught. However, while perpetrators of criminal acts may prefer to be anonymous, it does not necessarily follow that anonymity actually encourages crime or antisocial behaviour. In a study from 2012, titled “Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online dis-inhibition,” Noam Lapidot-Lefler argues that it is not the taking of a moniker that encourages anti-social behaviour, but rather the lack of eye contact. Rather than finding a correlation between antisocial behaviour and anonymity, Lapidot-Lefler found a direct correlation between anti-social behaviour and eye contact, demonstrating that even images of a human eye can affect the likelihood of individuals to commit antisocial acts. Lapidot-Lefler’s conclusions reinforce concerns about the tendency of online spaces to encourage crime, while weakening the case against monikers and pseudonyms.(Lapidot-Lefler, 2012) It may be detachment from face to face communication that corrupts, not the act of assuming a new identity.

What to make of all of this? Real name policies are becoming increasingly common on major networks and services, even as these services adopt a role as gateways. When Google users found their G+ accounts closed, they also lost access to other services: their YouTube accounts, their e-books, and their files.(Galperin, 2011) Meanwhile, government surveillance grows both in its ubiquity and its penetrative power. The American surveillance program, PRISM, has been shown to have a far reach, accessing and archiving vast quantities of personal data and communications.(Baraniuk, 2013) In recent years, whistle blowers and information leaks have revealed a tremendous growth in government attempts to monitor their citizens. (Baraniuk, 2013) Privacy protecting services face legal challenges, and technological hurtles. Technologies such as the Tor network, proxy servers, and virtual private networks provide some protection to users, but not all are legal or user-friendly.(Watson, 2012) For those concerned about government or corporate surveillance and accountability, pseudo anonymity can never be enough, and true-anonymity must be developed through technological advances, rather than legal battles. It is the governments and corporations of the world that activists and speakers are hoping to protect themselves from; it would be counter-intuitive to claim that they could rely on those very bodies to protect their speech online.

None of this really answers the question of online speech. The Nymwars rage on. On one side, a debate about the values of privacy and individual choice. Libertarians feel entiteld to a space outside of the reach of government and corporate surveillance and control. On the other hand, there are the costs of anonymity, both in crime and in antisocial behaviour.(Durkee, 2011) Others still have suggested that the very framing of the debate is misguided:

“Arguing that Facebook and Google “do identity wrong,” Christopher Poole, founder of anonymous message board 4Chan and image-sharing site Canvas, said at a conference last fall that “identity is prismatic. There are many lenses through which people view you. … Google and Facebook would have you believe that you’re a mirror, [but] in fact, we’re more like diamonds.

Poole’s contention offers a perspective we haven’t considered yet. That fixing individuals to a single identity is artificial, and awkward. To Poole, identity management has to allow for individuals to represent themselves differently according to their surroundings and environment. While the public debates values, the policy makers are being asked to weigh and rule on these perspectives, website administrators are invoking rules that set precedents, and laws are written and passed.

Conclusion

There are still no satisfactory answers as to the relationship between crime and anti-social behaviour and the adoption of monikers or pseudonyms. The evidence seems to suggest that true anonymity might facilitate crime, but that pseudo-anonymity would not; by that standard, users should be allowed to register under monikers as long as they are attached to hidden, traceable data such as an IP address, credit card, or registered legal name. Similarly, it might be argued that anti-social behaviour
is encouraged by the nature of online interactions, not by the choice of moniker. There is room for debate in both cases, but significantly the owners of the network do not have to wait for the conclusion of a debate, or for some academic consensus. Twitter, Facebook, and G+, have all instituted naming policies. Two of three require real names. The argument that privacy advocates are making is not fundamentally about the worthiness of any individual naming policy, but about rights. Privacy debates frequently overlook what may be a more significant factor in the ethos of those who prefer anonymity. The activists that wrote the manifestos defining hacker ethos weren’t trying to convince policy makers, they were staking claim to territory.

There is room for debate about how best to define website policies to encourage civil discourse. There is room for debate about the limitations that must be placed on law enforcement, both physical and online spaces. Without claiming that the defenders of anonymity are uninterested in those debates, it is necessary to remember that their terms are different: the real war, is over the ownership of space. This was clear in Barlow’s introduction, when he stated that “I declare the global social space we are
building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”(Barlow, 1996) The Mentor said it in his conclusion, claiming that “this is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud.” (The Mentor, 1996) Again, the claim appears in the Anonymous Manifesto, declaring that “we spend our time within a structure we created, the sum total of human experience spread throughout the world in ones and zeros. When CERN created the internet backbone, the goal was to freely share knowledge and learning with others throughout the world.”(Anonymous, 2013) The common ethos is one of ownership; the creators of these documents aren’t arguing that it is necessarily their legal right to exist anonymously on the internet, instead they argue that the internet is a collective space, a public good, and should be governed democratically. Right or wrong, they oppose the idea that the Facebooks, Googles, and governments of the world are entitled to make the decision for them. Privacy may be an ideological battleground in the Nymwars, but it is not the object of the war itself. On some levels, the Nymwars aren’t about true anonymity; Facebook and G+ never really afforded proper anonymity. The war is about ownership of a technology, and of a social space. Inevitably, the technology is not the contest itself, but a battle-ground for politics. As long as there are private interests and governments shaping our spaces for us, engineering our culture, and deciding what’s best for us, there will be dissidents and libertarians at the margins trying to claim a different world for themselves, outside of those influences. Right or wrong, that negotiation is what the Nymwars are about.

Bibliography

Anonymous. (n.d.) An Anonymous Manifesto. Retrieved from: http://anonnews.org/press/item/199/

Anonymous. (2013) We are Anonymous. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Retrieved from: http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/16308/1/we-are-anonymous-we-do-not-forgive-wedo-not-forget

Baraniuk, C. C. (2013). End of anonymity. New Scientist, 220(2940), 34-37.

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Durkee, M. (2011). THE TRUTH CAN CATCH THE LIE: THE FLAWED UNDERSTANDING OF ONLINE SPEECH IN IN RE ANONYMOUS ONLINE SPEAKERS. Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 26(1), 773.

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Gabriel, John. (2004) Green Blackboards, and other Anomalies. Retrieved from: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/
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Heussner, K. (2012). The internet identity crisis: to use or not to use a real name on the Web is not always a user’s prerogative. But maybe it should be. ADWEEK, (5). 22. Holmes, J. J. (2009). The new invisible man: How anonymity corrupts. American
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Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2012). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online disinhibition. Computers In Human Behavior, 28(2), 434-443.

Mentor, the. (1986) The Hacker Manifesto. Retrieved from:
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Steiner, Peter. (1993) On the Internet Nobody Knows You’re a Dog. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Internet%2C_nobody_knows_you%27re_a_dog

Watson, K. (2012). THE TOR NETWORK: A GLOBAL INQUIRY INTO THE LEGAL STATUS OF ANONYMITY NETWORKS. Washington University Global Studies Law Review, 11(3), 715-737.

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