“Guest” commenters, anonymous users, pseudonyms and pedophiles beware, your anonymity on the Internet is hanging in the balance. If family watch groups, state attorneys general and MySpace haters get their way, your true identity will be headlined next to everything you do.
The latest battle in the war on anonymity was waged on January 14 when MySpace and 49 state attorneys general released a set of privacy principles for online social networks. The majority of the release implements positive new systems in MySpace that liken it to Facebook, with separate networks for high schoolers, restrictions on changing one’s age, mandatory privacy restrictions for minors, etc.
Unfortunately, the movement doesn’t stop there. It continues forward and mandates the creation of a nationwide database to store the email addresses of minors. If parents don’t want their children to participate in online social networking, they can submit their child’s emails and they’re forever blocked from joining. Clearly a shallow promise from MySpace to keep regulators at bay, this measure is foiled in 30 seconds with the creation of a second email address unknown to the rebel child’s parents. Wonder if they thought about that. What’s more important here is how certain groups are advocating for the complete elimination of anonymity on the Internet.
Making MySpace safer for youngins’ is an important mission. MySpace’s previous efforts at “privacy” have been laughable. The site has operated as an unregulated assembly of disjointed, standards-less HTML pages without providing a shred of confidence to users that the page they’re looking at is genuine. Any step towards allowing users to segment themselves into networks and restrict access to their profiles is laudable. For example, to be a part of the high school network, you must be invited by at least two other high schoolers. This prevents skeezy old men from just joining on their own, unless of course they’re already holding two other high schoolers captive in their closet.
But, when sites like MySpace start verifying someone’s identity with a national database, it creates enormous problems for anonymity on the Internet. An article in USA Today advocated for such a measure in response to MySpace’s announcement. True, if no one could be anonymous, we wouldn’t have the problem of 55 year old men pretending to be 15, we wouldn’t have slanderous edits to Wikipedia. But, we also wouldn’t have whistleblower websites that reveal dark secrets about bad employers, we wouldn’t have honest discussions about sensitive issues, we wouldn’t have Lonelygirl15 or countless other web personalities that have thrived on their anonymity. The web would become regulated and secure, sterile and developed. It would be the closing of the wild frontier. The eccentricities of the web would be lost. Unfortunately, many of the people advocating for large-scale regulation and age verification from a national database just don’t understand quite how the Internet works.