Anonymity On The Internet Needs To End

You’ve probably been following the drama that occurred between Mike Arrington of TechCrunch and Leo Laporte on an episode of The Gilmor Gang on Laporte’s network.

Earlier today, Robert Scoble opened a discussion about this issue on Friendfeed. You can read it here – be warned, there are some 744 comments, and like any huge thread on Friendfeed, it’s a laborious process to follow.

This is the incident in a nutshell. Laporte had a new Palm Pre on his show, and Arrington asked if he paid for it. Leo replied that he did not and that it was a ‘one-week review unit’, which means that after seven days you’re meant to return it. Laporte then, rightly or wrongly, assumed Arrington was implying that his opinion on the Pre was compromised, and went ballistic.

Thanks to this very popular YouTube snippet of the incident, it was quickly all over the internet and large conversations began to take place on Friendfeed, Twitter, Laporte’s IRC chat room, and Techcrunch itself.

The latter was where most of the damage was done – many commentators, mostly anonymous, chose to attack Arrington repeatedly, and many threats and allegations were made. Arrington has heavily edited his ‘Ouch’ post on several occasions, but still intact is his reference to an incident that occurred at a conference in Munich earlier this year, where somebody walked up to him and deliberately spat in his face. After the spat with Laporte, who has a very strong following, Arrington was the recipient of a lot of negative and overly hostile comments on his blog and around the internet. (He mentioned at one point that TechCrunch deleted over 600 of these comments).

Here’s the thing: Arrington and Laporte are both well-seasoned pros and should have known better. I think they share equal blame for their behaviour on the show, and it’s to their credit that they’ve mostly resolved their differences (although Arrington has done a few strange things in the aftermath, such as deleting TechCrunch’s Friendfeed account, which has subsequently been recreated in an unofficial capacity.)

The problem here isn’t these guys – it’s the reaction. And it isn’t that the public doesn’t have a right to respond and comment on issues like this. That’s unavoidable, and if you’re a public figure, which Arrington is, certainly in the tech world, then you have to expect the good with the bad. If you do something that makes people unhappy, then expect to be called out on it. I don’t think Mike would assume otherwise.

The problem lies with anonymous feedback. Anybody can be a big hero and call somebody else a POS when they’re hiding behind a proxy and an alias. What does that prove? What does that mean? Nothing.

Dickwad Theory

I’m all for having a strong opinion, and voicing it. As long as they’re not defamatory or outright lies, I’m 100 per cent behind freedom of speech when it comes to those opinions. But if you have something to say, then you need to stand up and be counted. You need to accept that for your comment to matter – for it to mean something – it needs to be backed up with a verifiable account. We need to know it is you making that statement.

The mob mentality, which Scoble talks about at length on his Friendfeed thread, is never pretty. In real life it’s a frightening thing to see. But at least these are real people, and the legal system can make them accountable for their actions. When you get an anonymous mob on the internet, the majority of whom are too chicken-shit to say boo to a goose in real life because they don’t have a screen to hide behind, it produces a virtual poison which spreads quickly and far too easily around different networks, with almost zero accountability. The worst of it leads to defamation and libel, bullying, and threats of violence. And whatever good has arisen could just as easily have been accomplished without anonymity.

I’ve discussed this with colleagues before and one of them once made the analogy that in the offline world we are provided anonymity in certain situations for our protection, the common example being when we vote. That’s fine, and I accept that’s a positive – but it’s an apples and oranges example. While you can vote anonymously, you cannot do so unless you are legally registered. The only part that is anonymous is that your actual vote is not published alongside your name. This is a very different thing to making a comment in a newspaper, or in an internet forum or blog, particularly if that comment is attacking another individual.

Twitter recently announced plans to introduce verified accounts to the network, and this is something I’m 100 per cent behind. They’re going to start with public officials, public agencies, famous artists, athletes, and “other well known individuals at risk of impersonation”, but I hope it doesn’t end there. I want my account to be verified, too. I’d love to see the internet as a collective embrace an online identity program that we could all sign up for, and that made each of us verifiable as individuals. We’ve had this in various ways with security tests on websites pretty much since the web began – I see no reason why a person shouldn’t be afforded the same protection.

As it is, the internet sometimes operates like a reverse communist state, where industry leaders are often limited in the things they can say because they risk a violent backlash from the anonymous mob.

I’m not asking for online ID cards. I don’t care about your race, hair colour, gender, religious beliefs or occupation – although if you want to share that stuff in your profile then that should be an optional extra. All I want is a one-click way for everybody to hit a button and the system says, “Yes, this is really Sheamus.” We’re kind of seeing the early stages of this with things like Facebook Connect – I don’t think it will be too long before this kind of trusted authentication becomes totally cross-platform. And people won’t be as resistant as you might think – the majority are already very liberal with their personal data on social networks (perhaps overly so in some cases).

You could, of course, opt out of being verified. That’s an autonomy that must exist. But by doing so, you then accept the consequences – should they so choose, blogs and newspapers would have the facility to block all submissions from anonymous, unverifiable commentators. And I believe that not only would the majority of them take this step, they would be encouraged to do so. Certainly by administrators, whose time is severely impacted by comment moderation.

Anonymous message forums and networks will of course always exist, but if their ability to impact on other communities was restricted in this way, who would care?

To reiterate – everybody has a right to be heard. Freedom of speech affords us the luxury of being able to openly express our opinion. This is something that should never change. But there’s a world of difference between having an opinion and hiding behind one.

If you’ve got something to say, then by all means, go ahead. But don’t expect anybody to listen if you haven’t got the balls to say it yourself.