Amid unrest, a hard new look at online anonymity

One nonprofit is urging Facebook to let activists operate anonymously on the social network, saying they're put at risk by policy that only real identities may be used.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
Protesters in Egypt earlier this month, where Facebook-galvanized activists successfully pressured President Hosni Mubarak to step down. CC: Flickr user sierragoddess

Some people have undoubtedly forgotten that in the years before Facebook's fast ascent, social media was dominated by anonymity: handles worthy of CB radio, vintage AOL screen names trailed by strings of numbers, LiveJournal IDs bookended with the x's and o's of emo-kid culture. And there was a sense that in this odd and very public new medium, it wasn't safe to use your real, full name.

Thanks to Facebook, and founder Mark Zuckerberg's personal philosophy, that's changed. What Facebook did, with a policy that requires proper names and the initial restriction of access based on proven university or company affiliation, was bring the idea of "real identity" to the mainstream Internet. In general, that's been considered a good thing; but in the wake of widespread antigovernment protests across a number of Middle East and North African countries, the Facebook philosophy is facing a sharp challenge as critics suggest that a real-names-only policy could see pro-democracy activists targeted individually by autocratic governments.

A "digital freedom" nonprofit called Access Now is leading the charge, launching an online petition this week called "Unfriend the Dictators" to encourage Facebook to rethink its policy. An explanation on Access Now's site reads: "Facebook should be congratulated and condemned in one go: They've built a revolutionary platform that's catalyzed the political change sweeping the Middle East and beyond, but Facebook has also become a treasure trove of information for dictators, allowing them to identify and track down those who oppose them."

As the protests in the Middle East move beyond Egypt and Tunisia to the brutal reign of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, who has made threats of serious violence should opposition continue, the question becomes more pressing: Should Facebook bend the rules if it might save lives?

Access Now's petition is actually fourfold, Executive Director Brett Solomon explained to CNET when reached by phone. It asks Facebook to permit a way for the social network to be used without an identity attached; to increase security so that the HTTPS protocol is used instead of HTTP; to offer a "concierge" service to respond in cases of serious risk to political activists; and to ensure that the network will not turn over information to governments. The petition was launched, Solomon explained, by supporters of the organization who e-mailed requests for action on the issue.

"Ultimately, there will be tens of thousands of people from across the world who will sign this," Solomon told CNET.

There are critics of the move to let Facebook users anonymize. One of them is Jeff Jarvis, a longtime media pundit whose forthcoming book "Public Parts" promotes the possibilities of living a public rather than private life. "I understand the desire for anonymity, but I'm not sure that Facebook is then the tool to use," Jarvis told CNET. "The essence of Facebook is saying who you are. So perhaps this exposes the need for a new tool--a new opportunity. Perhaps Facebook could find ways to compromise in extraordinary circumstances, enabling masked accounts for people using Facebook to organize under repressive regimes. But that's really up to Facebook to decide whether that changes Facebook.

So why not use something other than Facebook? Anonymized usernames still dominate blog comments and forums. On both the left and the right sides of the American political spectrum, some online political forums have enjoyed real power for over a decade in spite of the fact that many of their active users don't make their real names public. There's also Twitter, where real names prevail--particularly among the media and entertainment junkies that still make up the lifeblood of the service--but anonymity is accepted.

The problem here is how central Facebook has become to global communication and grassroots organization (on the latter, a crucial point in the gathering of the protesting masses, it completely swamps Twitter). During the recent political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa, social media has served not just as an organization tool but also as a form of broadcast to the rest of the world, generating a network of interest and both domestic and overseas support for protesters. The faces of activists like Google's Wael Ghonim have humanized the crises for audiences that might not otherwise have formed that kind of emotional connection.

And let's not forget the seediness--harassment, malicious hacking--that's historically been associated with online anonymity, and the fact that it could provide not just activists, but also the governments they're working against, with the privilege of working under the radar.

"It's tricky because the same protection we want to offer activists can be used to protect people wanting to cause harm," said Anthony De Rosa, a Reuters blogger and media strategist who has blogged semi-anonymously under the pseudonym "Soup Soup." "I think the best way to approach it is to offer anonymity but provide a facility, definitely not automated, that can be used to investigate if someone is using that anonymity improperly. We'd have to define what that means."

But, De Rosa pointed out, activists will do whatever they can either way, and a policy decision on behalf of a social-networking company likely would not tip the scales in favor of one side or the other in such an uprising.

"I think we have seen that it doesn't really matter if Facebook does this or not. Wael Ghonim was posting under a pseudonym the entire time and was very successful at helping to organize and take down the Mubarak regime through Facebook," he told CNET. "He's been very vocal about the role Facebook played and despite violating their policy he was able to leverage it to its maximum potential."

Facebook was not immediately available for comment. But its terms of service make its position clear: "Facebook users provide their real names and information," the terms explain. "You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook."