Tuesday, October 4, 2011

EFF analyzes the dangers of social networking site policies banning anonymous, pseudonymous registration, as particularly damaging overseas challenging dictatorships, criminal cartels

Eva Galperin has a detailed story Oct 3 on the Electronic Frontier Foundation site about the serious potential ramifications overseas of strict “true identity” policies enforced by some social networking sites, especially Facebook and now Google Plus.

Although these sites do not mechanically prevent pseudonyms from being used, they will suspend (sometimes with little warning) users reported by others to not be using real names, according to the EFF story. These would invite political or criminal enemies of social network users to “report” users to shut them down.

It is true that in western countries, governments have been concerned that anonymous use of social networking (and perhaps blogging) sites facilitates cyberbullying, identity theft, and possible enablement of vandalizing flash mobs, and perhaps “stegonographic” use by potential terrorists.  From a purely public policy approach, this can be a tough problem.  Facebook, particularly, has sided with US and British governments in these concerns and has said that use of multiple identities or anonymous identity demonstrates lack of “integrity”.  On the other hand, the ACLU has vigorously defended a fundamental right to public anonymous speech.

EFF also encourages overseas users to become skilled in TOR and use encryption (https). Without the use of these technologies and also the use of anonymity or pseudonymity, the “Arab spring” revolutions might well not have happened.  Social networking site policies could have a big effect on the success of these populist uprisings.

It’s also true that western countries (especially Britain) have long recognized writing books  -- especially novels – under pseudonyms or pen names, as legitimate.  How should social networking sites handle this kind of use? It’s also true that many writers or artists derive “stage” names from nicknames given to them.

EFF points out that organized crime (like drug cartels in Mexico or Latin America or mafia-like groups in countries like Russia) also goes after blogger who write about their activities under their “legitimate” identities, again a problem for social networking site identity policies.  The EFF story is quite graphic on this point.

It would seem that social networking companies, especially Facebook and Google+, should consider very carefully how they want to deploy "identification" policies for overseas use, because there can be enormous consequences overseas for some users to use their true identities. This could amount to a major strategic decision for any such social networking or publishing-service company planning to expand overseas (and eventually be able to work effectively in China) -- to "rule the world" with a kind of "techocracy".  Possibly companies need to consider different policies in some countries overseas (as compared to policies for use within "democracies").  Such companies ought to meet (maybe again) with the Administration and State Department on the matter (as well as with similar aspects of British and other western governments) in a little "parlor diplomacy". Keep in mind, too, that Americans (or any westerners) traveling in non-democratic countries could get in trouble for Facebook (or similar use, including Blogger or Wordpress, Twitter, etc) use when tracked to them, even possibly for use done at home before they entered potentially "hostile" religious or otherwise non-democratic countries.  I wonder if this issue could exist for American bloggers thinking about visiting China even now (that includes me). 

The link for detailed the EFF story is here.

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