Let’s have an internet-wide real name policy

By James Cook on January 10th, 2013

As The Kernel has demonstrated in the past, associate someone’s real name to abusive content that they’ve posted online, and suddenly they aren’t so keen on standing by it. A growing trend online is the use of a real name policy, with users required to post under their real identity. This crackdown on pseudonymous content and anonymous posting is often accompanied by a rise in quality, and a friendlier community.

Would you scam someone on eBay if they knew your real name? Would you tell someone to go kill themselves via Twitter if everyone who followed that person knew who you were? The odds are that, no, you would not.

Allowing users to enter any name they choose into sites like Twitter opens the door to malicious content and online trolling. This illusion of a separate world in which they can act as they wish in a land free from basic moral standards is instantly dispelled when we introduce a policy that ensures they need to associate their full name with their posts.

This isn’t as radical an idea as you might think. The number of community-driven sites that encourage users to sign up using their real credentials is growing by the day thanks to the relative ease of social sign-up. Simply select “Connect with Facebook”, click a few buttons, and there you are: the new site has your details and you’re ready to go. What some users don’t realise, of course, is that by signing up to a service with Facebook, you’re giving that service not only your real name, but access to a mine of information about you.

Whether you realise it or not, Facebook operates a real name policy. Enter something obviously fake on the site and you’ll be asked to change it. Continue using false names and you won’t be able to use Facebook at all. And, as we have seen, this policy means that it is easy to identify Facebook trolls and bring them to rights. As social sign-up spreads, hopefully the standard of content online will also improve.

Question and answer site Quora has one of the most famous real name policies on the internet. It doesn’t happen often, but sign up to the site with an obviously fake name and your profile will be flagged. You’ll receive a message asking you to change to your real name and provide proof. Fail to do so, and you won’t be able to create any content on the site whatsoever.

This policy has been criticised for being restrictive, and for hampering the spread of information. And, sure, it may lead to less content, but content on Quora is of consistently high quality. It’s this consistency across the site that makes it a favoured destination for high-profile technology industry figures, as they can post in a friendly community with a high barrier to entry for anonymous trolls.

But along with its real name policy, Quora also facilitates anonymous answering. Users can add questions or answers completely anonymously, and unsurprisingly, it’s here that the moderation problems really begin. As an admin on the site, I can say that a sizeable percentage of moderation action occurs as a result of anonymous content.

As soon as people are able to post content anonymously, they are far more likely to resort to trolling and abusive behaviour. It’s also worth noting that anonymous content is more likely to be misjudged and considered insincere since the key information and credibility provided by a real name is absent.

When faced with a real name policy, some Quora users complain. They message the moderation email address citing privacy concerns, or simple anger that they can’t use a preferred identity. And, to a certain extent, I agree with them. Scanning your passport to send to someone over the internet in order to use a website feels bizarre: it reminds us of those who exist in a society where access to the internet is tightly controlled.

Try to sign up to Sina Wiebo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, for example, and you’ll be left with one box on the login page that is difficult to fill: ‘护照’. This roughly translates into English as “passport”. In order to sign up for the site, users have to enter details from their Chinese identity card. This gives the state the power to track down any users who may be posting messages critical of the regime.

A real name policy could also hamper the spread of sensitive and important information. Services like Twitter were incredibly valuable during the Arab Spring, facilitating the spread of information in countries where the ruling party exerts oppressive control over its citizens. A real name policy here could prove disastrous, even dangerous.

So how exactly can such a widespread real name policy be implemented safely? Clearly it’s not viable to force everyone using the internet to do so with their real name, but perhaps we could dispel the notion of anonymity as a right. Take a look at the functionality offered by the Y Combinator social network Hacker News.

Users are only able to downvote content once their own posts and comments have reached a certain level of popularity. Could anonymity be a privilege earned by good conduct online, rather than a fundamental right for all internet users?

An anonymous troll who wrote earlier this week for The Kernel believes that many internet users believe anonymity to be basic functionality that should be automatically granted to all users. Many would disagree. I believe that users should earn the right to post anonymously. This would raise the baseline level needed to post hateful content, making sites a far less attractive prospect for would-be trolls.

A growing industry in India is the processing of vast levels of human excrement in order to harvest the tiniest amounts of gold, which is a trace element found in all humans. This is an incredibly lengthy and disgusting procedure, which only generates a small piece of valuable metal at the end.

If we force potential internet trolls to use social networks normally and interact with other users before gaining the anonymity they so desire, would they bother? Would they go through this process, or look for easier pickings elsewhere? Perhaps they would find that using websites normally under their own names isn’t so bad after all.