SXSW debate: Social networks must require real names

During debate at South by Southwest, lawyers argue over whether social-media sites should curb anonymity.

CNET Correspondent Declan McCullagh and Collette Vogele of the nonprofit group Without My Consent at a South by Southwest panel about anonymity on social-media sites.
CNET correspondent Declan McCullagh and Collette Vogele of the nonprofit group Without My Consent at a South by Southwest panel about anonymity on social-media sites.

AUSTIN, Texas--Social-networking sites need to curb users' anonymity in favor of requiring real names and logging Internet addresses, an attorney said at a debate at the South by Southwest Interactive conference here moderated by CNET correspondent Declan McCullagh.

Collette Vogele, a Microsoft senior copyright counsel who said she was not speaking on behalf of her employer, suggested that anti-anonymity, anti-pseudonymity policies were a better business practice that would attract more users and reduce the number of cases of online harassment, especially of women. Google+ initially disallowed pseudonyms but earlier this year adopted a more liberal policy; Facebook is more restrictive.

"Anonymity has a place in society," but you shouldn't allow it on your social site, said Vogele, who in addition to her day job is president and co-founder of a nonprofit group called Without My Consent.

In response to a question from McCullagh, Vogele said she would not go as far as suggesting that Congress enact new laws requiring social-networking Web sites or Internet providers to keep track of their users' Internet addresses--an approach adopted by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), whose bill was approved by a House of Representatives committee last year. Rather, she said, data retention should be a voluntary best practice.

Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, replied by saying that anonymity is needed to allow freedom of expression and has been vital for pro-democracy movements such as last year's revolutions that spawned the phrase the Arab Spring. "This country was founded on unpopular ideas by unpopular speakers and they used anonymity. It's part of why we have protection of freedom of speech, to protect unpopular ideas," she said. "The Federalist papers were not signed, neither were the comments to them."

In addition, information stored on Web servers about identities becomes vulnerable to government subpoena and hackers and identity thieves, Cohn said.

But online harassment cases--such as that of blogger Kathy Sierra, who was driven offline after receiving anonymous threatening e-mails on her blog--illustrate other threats from anonymity, Vogele said. Requiring identities will keep things civil, she said.

Cohn countered that the harassers in that case could have been identified eventually through their IP address.

 

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