October 24, 2011

Don’t listen to Mark Zuckerberg: anonymity and privacy still have their place

The centralization of all our personal data in the hands of a few powerful interests should worry us

Ishmael N. Daro
The Sheaf (University of Saskatchewan)

SASKATOON (CUP) — There was a time when most email addresses included references to princesses, sparkles or surfing. Perhaps you remember this time, when MSN Messenger was king and MySpace was still a pedophile’s best friend.

People’s online identities are no longer divorced from their offline lives. It’s likely that the email on your resume is something that identifies you by name — something that “surferpunk88@hotmail.com” never quite did.

The trend toward real identities online has undoubtedly been bolstered by Facebook. The social network insists on people using their real names and founder Mark Zuckerberg is a well-known foe of anonymity.

“The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he told David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Zuckerberg has financial and philosophical reasons for this position. Each tidbit of personal data we feed into Facebook allows him to sell ever more targeted advertising on the site — which has helped make the Harvard dropout one of the youngest billionaires in the world. But Zuckerberg also thinks anonymity leads to bad behaviour, letting people get away with things they would not otherwise say or do.

There’s some logic to this. Think of any website that allows anonymous comments and the level of discourse found there. Trolls are, unfortunately, a part of the Internet, and making people stand behind their words with their real identities helps to cut down on the stupidity.

When the technology blog TechCrunch switched over to only allowing comments tied to Facebook accounts, two things happened. First, it led to much more intelligent discussion. Second, the number of comments dropped by about half.

Therein lies the crux of the matter. Making people put their names down may improve manners, but it can also lead to less participation. Free speech can be messy and sometimes dangerous. You can’t always say publicly what you feel privately, as dissidents in Iran and China sometimes find out the hard way. There needs to be room to anonymously march against injustice or, if need be, call someone a Nazi on a message board without every act coming back to haunt you.

Jeff Jarvis, author of Public Parts, writes that the two forces at play are identity and reputation: “Our identities are the first-person expressions of ourselves. Our reputations are others’ third-person views of us. Thanks to our increasing publicness, the two are coming closer and sometimes into conflict.”

People have a right to their secrets, as well as to the various parts of their personalities that they may share selectively with different people. It’s not a sign of “a lack of integrity,” as Zuckerberg suggests, but rather a sign of being human. If you truly act the same way around every person you know, you either don’t know many people or you’re insane.

The centralization of all our personal data in the hands of a few powerful interests should worry us. No amount of browsing history truly represents your full personality, but it can reveal many embarrassing things. Your health records, in the wrong hands, could paint a very warped image of you. Your text messages may show you hopelessly addicted to sexting. Your credit card company might think that all you do is watch Vietnamese porn.

Consider the $1-billion security pact being worked out between Canada and the United States. The proposed deal could give American border agents a deep look into your personal information. They could then bar you from travelling into the U.S. for trivial reasons.

If everything we do gets tagged, uploaded and tweeted, we will lose our ability to make mistakes or keep our secrets. There is no need to be paranoid about this, but as information flows more freely in a wired world, we may soon find unwanted bits of ourselves swimming in the digital stream.

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Category: Op-Ed

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