Facebook, Twitter, Online Identity Integration & the Future of Anonymity

by on June 29, 2009 · 13 comments

The Wired article (“Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network’s Plan to Dominate the Internet — and Keep Google Out“) I discussed yesterday touched on another issue near & dear to my heart (besides the importance of smarter advertising): the future of online anonymity. The article lays out Facebook’s “4-Step Plan for Online Domination,” which involves “colonizing” the web though Facebook’s Connect (launched Dec. 2008) and Open Stream API (launched April 2009) initiatives, which:

don’t just allow users to access their Facebook networks from anywhere online. They also help realize Facebook’s longtime vision of giving users a unique, Web-wide online profile. By linking Web activity to Facebook accounts, they begin to replace the largely anonymous “no one knows you’re a dog” version of online identity with one in which every action is tied to who users really are.

To hear Facebook executives tell it, this will make online interactions more meaningful and more personal. Imagine, for example, if online comments were written by people using their real names rather than by anonymous trolls. “Up until now all the advancements in technology have said information and data are the most important thing,” says Dave Morin, Facebook’s senior platform manager. “The most important thing to us is that there is a person sitting behind that keyboard. We think the Internet is about people.”

The bolded prediction of what I would call “Online Identity Integration” is already happening.  To take one tiny example, readers can now post comments on the TLF by logging into Disqus (our Comment Management System) through their Facebook (or Twitter) account, which will also allow them to automatically share those comments on Facebook (or Twitter). This is purely opt-in: Users are free to continue to post anonymous comments. But as more websites and platforms implement such Identity Integration functionality, a growing percentage of online speech will be tied to profiles offered by major social networks.

Some free speech advocates are sure to bemoan Identity Integration as directly undermining online anonymity. But as long as such a trend is voluntary, driven by the desire of users to integrate their online presence to make it more manageable, I think Identity Integration will be a good thing not only for users, but also for free speech. As the recent use of social media by the Iranian opposition has amply demonstrated, sites like Facebook and Twitter are more than just “social networks”:  they are online speech platforms that profoundly democratize communications. Integrating my online soapboxes amplifies my voice—for example, by letting me easily share my comments on scattered blogs with my friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter.

But, of course, if Identity Integration increases the user’s perception that “someone” might be monitoring what they say online, and might punish them for it, either in a tort suit or… a torture chamber, online speech will certainly be chilled, even if it is more “effective” on some level. Identity Integration will certainly make it easier for a plaintiff to identify who posted a defamatory comment about them, but still not automatic. Sites like Facebook will face increased pressure to divulge identifying information about their users. Even if an allegedly defamatory comment on a blog is tied to the Facebook profile of what appears to be a real person, a plaintiff complaining about that comment would still need to prove to some degree of certainty who actually posted the comment. As social networking sites increasingly become a “critical chokepoint” of online identity, they will probably face pressure to do one or both of the following:

  1. Authenticate their users upon initial account creation and upon each subsequent log-in; and
  2. Take down content that is allegedly defamatory or just plain unpopular with a particular politician/mullah/state attorney general.

Concentrating the ability to do these things will certainly make such pressure both more likely to happen and more likely to succeed. It is also likely to strengthen proposals to formally implement such changes in Congress, for example, by discarding or amending the immunity of online intermediaries under Section 230, something my PFF colleague Adam Thierer has recently discussed here and here. I hope Facebook, Twitter and others are ready for the pressure. But online middlemen don’t want to be deputized into policing their users, particularly when that means making highly subjective determinations of, say, whether content is defamatory.

Rather than criticize online intermediaries for developing Identity Integration technologies that make it easier to identify online speakers, free speech advocates need to be willing to do two things:

  1. Accept that some users will freely choose less anonymity (such as by posting using Facebook Connect) and that’s ok. Identity Integration technologies create real value and, much as defenders of online anonymity don’t like to admit it, they will also both reduce online defamation and make it easier for the truly aggrieved to find justice—both good things.
  2. Protecting online anonymity will mean joining forces with Facebook, Twitter, etc. to help them fend off pressure to identify their users except under a “third party subpoena” validly issued by a court that has weighed the First Amendment values at stake against legitimate suits by the truly aggrieved—something I detailed here.

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