Here’s a great TechDirt article on the importance of online anonymity. As it points out, the only people claiming that real-name policies will fix online abuse are those with power in society. Not only is it not true (apparently users are more likely to post abuse when using their real names, not less), but requiring the use of real names can act as a gag order on many people – and cynically, I think this is the real motivation behind the call.
Here are just a few examples of how this is the case. Thanks to a really terrible legal decision, public servants in Australia are banned from making critical comments about the government online – pseudonyms are essential to prevent 10% of the workforce from being deprived the right of political free speech that all other Australians are constitutionally entitled to. For many other workers – particularly those who work with children, or are otherwise in fields where irrelevant people feel entitled to be judgemental about their lifestyle and make them suffer the repercussions even though it’s completely irrelevant to their work – they need to maintain a “spotless” online image just to remain in their jobs without issue. If you’re in a job like that and you want to, say, criticise Australian nationalism, or the churches, or post about your sexuality (especially if you do “alternative” things like swing, or even if you’re gay!) then it’s waaaaay safer to do so under a pseudonym, in a way that cannot be traced back to you. The TechDirt article gives a whole list of further reasons that people have given as to why they don’t want to use their real name online – for example, avoiding stalkers and real-world abuse, or conversely, to build up and maintain a public profile under a more recognisable name than their real one. Even for those of us not in positions to need to hide our real names ourselves, surely we can understand the concerns of those who are?
Are we supposed to believe that all these people’s livelihoods, freedom of expression and personal safety should be jeopardised for the sake of maybe sparing politicians and media personalities some vile comments? (Because as the article establishes, that won’t work.) Or is it more realistic that the (almost entirely) conservatives making these demands know what the consequences will be, and they want marginalised people and government/church critics to be forced to shut up and stay in their box, lest they suffer the consequences? (And then you have your la-la land privileged liberals going along with it because they simply can’t imagine having a job you could lose over a comment – or having the kind of comment to make that could see you lose your job.)
For me, this further cements the importance of having independent social media and independent web presences, rather than throwing your lot in with a silo platform that could introduce a policy like this on a whim (if they don’t have one already, à la Facebook). Also, considering I live in a country where the government actually does try legislating things that seem ridiculously unenforceable and bullshit (case in point 1, case in point 2), I would really prefer this debate get killed where it stands rather than reaching the point that our government actually does legislate it because they are morons.