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A Less Anonymous Internet?

A bill opposing online anonymity was quickly shot down by privacy advocates in Illinois, but some experts think non-anonymous behavior online will someday prevail.

by / March 4, 2013

A bill before the Illinois General Assembly that proposed eliminating online anonymity will be withdrawn, the bill's author announced Feb. 21, following opposition from online communities and harsh criticism from Internet analysts.

Intended to combat cyberbullying, Illinois Senate Bill 1614, introduced by Sen. Ira Silverstein, proposed the creation of the “Internet Posting Removal Act.” The act would have compelled website administrators to remove comments, upon request, unless a poster attached his real name, a confirmed IP address and physical home address with the website. In addition to being a logistical nightmare, as many pointed out, Andrew Sellars, staff attorney at the Digital Media Law Project, encapsulated the objections of many when he wrote, “the entire premise of this bill is fundamentally repugnant to the First Amendment and may actually harm those that it is likely intended to help protect.”

Before backtracking on the legislation, Silverstein told the Chicago Sun-Times, “It really has to do with cyberbullying. The Internet is a great thing, and everyone is for it. Saying something is one thing, but once you put it on the Internet, it’s there forever.” Introduced on Feb. 13, the bill survived just eight days before Silverstein announced he would retract it.

The Internet has deep roots in anonymity and most past attempts to betray that history, including Silverstein's legislation, have been soundly thwarted. Last year, Google attempted to bring some civility to the comments section of YouTube by announcing that all users would be required to post under their real names. After facing opposition similar to that seen toward Sen. Silverstein's bill, Google changed their policy to make the use of one's real name optional. Predictably, comments on YouTube have mostly continued in their usual anonymous and sometimes profane fashion.

But this wasn't the first time the idea of a non-anonymous Internet has appeared and it likely won't be the last. In fact, one analyst said, over the next few decades there will be a transition toward most online behavior becoming personally attributed.

People or organizations that attempt to remove the element of anonymity from the Internet have good intentions, said Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU of Illinois, but they sometimes don't think through the potential impact of compromising online anonymity. “We have always taken a very strong position in supporting and protecting the right of anonymous speech," Yohnka said. "That anonymous speech does a number of important things and plays a number of important roles, oftentimes in terms of whistleblowers and things of that nature.”

According to Gartner Research Director Brian Blau, rumor has it that Sony, too, will implement a non-anonymity policy for the upcoming release of their new gaming system, the PlayStation 4, requiring users of the system's online gaming network to use their real names. And Facebook, one of the most culturally influential websites on the Internet, actively fights anonymity online by removing fake profiles or profiles with fake names.

The online trend, Blau said, is toward Facebook's way of doing things, even despite public opposition to bills like the one proposed by Sen. Silverstein. “I don't think it's going to happen in the short term but over the longer term, I'm talking years and even decades, I think that situation is going to change,” Blau said. “In fact, any of your online behavior is going to be attributed back to you. It's not just going to be video games, it's going to be everything.”

Photo from Shutterstock

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Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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