You Said It, Rockwell

Blizzard doesn't like it. Facebook doesn't like it. Google doesn't like it. The US government doesn't like it, unless you're using it to overthrow someone they like even less. It seems like it's getting harder and harder these days to find anyone in a position of any kind of power or authority who does like it.

But why is online anonymity such a big deal? Why do all these powerful institutions think it's a problem that needs to be solved? And why, most importantly, are they wrong?

The arguments against online anonymity mostly come down to the idea that using their real names will make people behave better. And anyone who's ever looked at a YouTube comment section or the endless demands for pictures of tits on forums or, well, any of 4chan at all might be tempted to agree with that goal. Wouldn't it be nice, after all, if the internet were a nicer place? If people didn't think that, just because they're hidden behind a pseudonym, they have free license to let their very worst impulses run wild? If the internet were just a little more like real life?

 I'm sure he's just helping fix that boys shirt.  After all, this is real life!

Well, last time I checked, real life wasn't exactly an unrelenting parade of good manners. People are horrible to each other, in real time, in person, face to face, all the damn time. And not just in the anonymous encounters, like the young man taking up two bus seats and blasting rap from his cellphone or the customer screaming at a cashier for not having the power to change corporate policy. There are bullies in every school and work-place out there, usually known by pretty much everyone in their sphere of influence, and totally immune to any kind of social pressure to conform to standards of proper behaviour. The real world is no more or less full of rude, aggressive, insulting and bigoted people than the internet. So why is it that when a prominent US politician compares loving homosexual couples to child molesters or zoophiles it's just part of life, but when one video game player calls another 'fagtard' suddenly society has to step in?

Well, the reasons these institutions think anonymity is a problem are about as simple as can be. For the private sector, the Blizzards and Facebooks and Googles out there, anonymity is bad for business. It hinders their ability to either tailor their own advertisements, or sell selected ad spaces to others on their platform. Of course Google wants you to use your full, legal name on Google+ and invite as many of your friends to use their full, legal names as well, along with your age, sex, city of residence and interests. More than anything else, Google is in the business of selling ad space. Oh sure, they have arguably the best search engine available, but that's really just a way to entice people into viewing the ads that generate their revenue. It's not like they make any money off the search itself, after all, so they have to be getting the billions and billions of dollars they're worth somewhere. And while Blizzard isn't in quite the same boat, real-name log-ins give them an unprecedented degree of detail in their understanding of their customer base. Is the service weak in urban-dwelling female gamers aged 25-30? What's their penetration like for rural males 18-21? What races are most popular with the groups who are most active in their community, and how can they change them to get these people even more firmly enmeshed in their services? Before RealID Blizzard would have had to pay some other company to survey their player base, and they could never have been entirely sure the results were accurate. But if they can force their players to give them all that detail they can do the number crunching themselves, get more trustworthy results, and save money while they're doing it. It's win-win-win for Blizzard.

Pictured: Winning.

And of course, the reason the US government doesn't like anonymity is the same reason no government ever likes it; it makes surveillance more difficult. I'm not even trying to paint the US in a particularly unflattering light with regards to its motives here. Every country is concerned, to a greater or lesser degree, with being able to find out what its citizens are doing. Sometimes it's for noble reasons of policy feedback or public consultation, sometimes it's for gross abuses of freedom like the McCarthy 'witch hunts' or the interning of asian-descended citizens in WW2, and sometimes it's for legitimate national security concerns, like infiltrating terrorist organizations, both foreign and domestic. Mostly, though, it's just because no government has ever had enough data. There may not even be such a thing as enough data. And mostly it's perfectly harmless, records of parking tickets and applications for zoning changes and permits for a certain kind of roof shingle. And it's tossed into the metaphorical back room, with piles and piles and piles of similarly-useless-seeming data, probably never to be seen again. But governments are the ultimate packrats, and they always believe in holding on to things 'just in case'. Trying to end online anonymity is motivated by the same desire for more data. It's not really about stopping terrorists or child pornography or pedophiles; the authorities already have the tools to go after those sorts of people. It's a lack of manpower, not tools, that hampers those investigations. No, ultimately it's just about having every last scrap of data because, you never know, it might come in handy some day.

So is there a good argument in favour of doing away with online anonymity? Unless you're a business or a government, I don't think there is. Anonymity does no harm, and frankly it can be pretty necessary for a lot of the things people do online. Perfectly legal things, of course, but things which, nonetheless, they might not want the rest of the world to know about. And isn't that fair? Who says we have to live our lives with the curtains open and the blinds up? What's so bad about a little privacy, anyway?

Or, y'know, a lot.  A lot.

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