Pressure Against Online Anonymity - or: Towards Online Identification
Online free speech is increasingly under attack. Not just by classical censorship, but by laws and regulations that would prohibit anonymity and establish mandatory identification systems.
The People’s Republic of China is working on a “real name verification system” for bloggers, but also for online gamers. South Korea is developing a similar “internet real-name system” for bloggers that they would have to use for posting blog entries and comments.
In the US, conservative senators McCain and Schumer introduced the "Keeping the Internet Devoid of Sexual Predators Act of 2007" (also called "KIDS Act", Bill No. S.431) in January 2007, which would force all convicted sexual offenders to register all their online identities with the authorities. They are dead serious about this: If people fail to register, they will face up to ten years of imprisonment. This is not for raping anyone; this is just for not telling the government all their online user names and pseudonyms. The bill has even attracted democratic co-sponsors, including Barrack Obama, John Kerry, Patrick Leahy and Dianne Feinstein.
Now, Kentucky is making the news with a proposal similar to the Chinese and Korean ones:
Kentucky Representative Tim Couch filed a bill this week to make anonymous posting online illegal. The bill would require anyone who contributes to a website to register their real name, address and e-mail address with that site. Their full name would be used anytime a comment is posted.Digg alerts its readers that the story was "reported by diggers as possibly inaccurate". Well, it is accurate. Here is the relevant part of the bill:
SECTION 2. A NEW SECTION OF KRS CHAPTER 369 IS CREATED TO READ AS FOLLOWS:What is the reasoning behind it? National security? Preventing online stalking and insults? No - bullying! Local tv station WTVQ reports:
(1) An interactive service provider shall establish, maintain, and enforce a policy to require information content providers to register a legal name, address, and valid electronic mail address as a precondition of using the interactive service.
(2) An interactive service provider shall establish, maintain, and enforce a policy to require information content providers to be conspicuously identified with all information provided by, at a minimum, their registered legal name.
(3) An interactive service provider shall establish reasonable procedures to enable any person to request and obtain disclosure of the legal name, address, and valid electronic mail address of an information content provider who posts false or defamatory information about the person.
SECTION 3. A NEW SECTION OF KRS CHAPTER 369 IS CREATED TO READ AS FOLLOWS:
An interactive service provider that violates any of the provisions of Section 2 of this Act shall be fined five hundred dollars ($500) for the first offense and one thousand dollars ($1,000) for each subsequent offense.
Representative Couch says he filed the bill in hopes of cutting down on online bullying. He says that has especially been a problem in his Eastern Kentucky district.Because Tim Couch gets all the fire now, it is fair to mention that his republican party colleague Jimmy Higdon is co-sponsoring the bill.
Ryan Radia has a good post about the background for these developments at the Technology Liberation Front:
The Kentucky bill comes on the heels of controversy over the growing popularity of JuicyCampus.com, a "Web 2.0 website focusing on gossip" where college students post lurid—and often fabricated—tales of fellow students’ sexual encounters. The website bills itself as a home for "anonymous free speech on college campuses," and uses anonymous IP cloaking techniques to shield users’ identities. Backlash against the site has emerged, with Pepperdine’s student government recently voting to ban the site on campus. (...)But there is hope, at least for the moment. WTVQ from Kentucky again:
Despite the appeal of combating defamation by banning online anonymity, lawmakers should be wary about restricting anonymous speech in the name of fighting libel. The same laws designed to deter defamation can also be used to target political dissent or silence whistleblowers for whom the option of remaining anonymous is critical.
Couch says enforcing this bill if it became law would be a challenge.At the moment, he is absolutely right.
But what happens if, in ten years from now, we all have government-issued IDs that function as smart cards and together with the OpenCardSpace technology (or whatever it is called then) can be used to authenticate us before we can post anything online? The identity management systems that are being developed and rolled out right now are laying the foundations that may be used to end online anonymity. I certainly hope that U-Prove or similar technology is built into every identity system and operating system by then. But what if legislation forces the technologists to disable the anonymity for certain uses? That's why the struggle for free speech and anonymity also has to be a political and legal one, not just a technological one.