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Internet anonymity suffering scrutiny courtesy of the London riots

internet anonymityUp until quite recently, the Internet used to welcome the nameless with open arms. This was the place where Second Life avatars were born, where the commenting handle become a platform of the most honest self-expression, and where you could blog unabashedly without fear of your little brother finding and subsequently reading your diary. But Internet anonymity is taking a serious beating, and we have the merging of augmented reality and…well, real reality, to thank for that.

The more we live on the Web, the more we’re being held accountable there. Google+ infamously instituted its “real name policy,” abdicating that your legal given name is how you will be identified on the site. There was general backlash–mostly caused by its initial dismissal of anyone who it considered “fake,” but that has since died down. Facebook has had a similar agenda since day one, but it appears easier to circumvent their standards.

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And social networks aren’t the only ones issuing identification crackdowns. Web publications are attempting to evade trolls by requiring real names via Twitter and Facebook sign-ins for commenting purposes. The upside here is that it will clearly scare off those that want nothing more than to begin an unproductive commentary, but the sacrifices are plenty.

Now, the fallout from the London riots looks like it will take yet another swing at extinguishing the Internet handle. The New York Times reports that after meeting with Twitter, Facebook, and BlackBerry, British officials are considering requiring Twitter users to register with their real names. Twitter’s response was that this isn’t an option, suggesting there might be something of a struggle between the company and the British government in our midst.

The entire episode has highlighted the fact that there is less and less to hide behind in the digital world, and that your technology can easily turn on you or turn you in–quite literally in the case of the riots. “When people use a telephone, under certain circumstances, law enforcement has a means of intercepting that,” senior police officer Gordon Scrobbie says. “Just because it’s a different media, we shouldn’t stand back and say, ‘We don’t play in that space.’”

Privacy Clearinghouse director of communications, Amber Yoo, believes that pseudonyms are an underpinning of online privacy. “On a site like Twitter, it’s really important that people are allowed to use pseudonyms there. That’s how it started, that’s how it works. People rely on it for political coordination, so this makes an alias integral for the service.” She also says that user backlash toward anonymity policies vary depending on the site: Google is an advertising company, so the reaction to the G+ real name policy makes sense. Facebook was first used for student-to-student contact, so it experienced milder feedback regarding this issue. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve mentioned concern about the decreasing room for anonymity on the net, and it likely won’t be the last. Previously, we were uneasy about how Internet properties were dealing with this issue, and forcing their own agendas on consumers. This time, the tone is being set by legal officials. If in reaction to the BART protests, San Francisco police suggested that all citizens of the city had to use their real names on Twitter and Facebook and the like, we would hope there’d be a very strong reaction. Were we all required to do this, social networking sites would become an incredibly useful, and potentially manipulated tool for law authorities.

What seems most confusing to us is that this entire reasoning seems to be based on the fact that people only use pseudonyms for crime, or that at least enough of them do to justify anti-anonymity actions. Of course this just isn’t the case, and we have to disagree with Mark Zuckerberg’s opinion that attempting to have separate identities on and off the net means a person “lacks integrity.” It doesn’t necessarily make you shady, and it might even make you smart (who really wants their LinkedIn and Farmville profiles to bear the same user name?). And flat-out putting the kibosh on Internet anonymity is a concept that is destined for failure–just ask South Korea.

Just to play devil’s advocate, we can understand why this discussion needs to at least be had. When the Internet was consuming a fraction of our time, being anonymous wasn’t as much of a liability. Now it consumes monstrous amounts of it: It’s where a massive amount of our interactions take place. It’s much more powerful and we’re able to do so much more with it. So when a platform changes, so should its rules.

We fail to think that Twitter and message boards should act as babysitters, and hopefully the Internet handle isn’t about to feel some more hurt. ­Some sites need real names, and some don’t. Personally, we don’t think Twitter does. But it appears that might be up for debate. 

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Why Google+ kicked out William Shatner

Google+ temporarily gave William Shatner the boot from the site, which can likely be attributed to the site’s extreme policing. Shatner’s account is thought to have been suspended because Google+ has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to fake accounts, and his was assumed to be so. It has since been verified and restored, but it is yet another sign that Google is incredibly intent on keeping the site free of hassles that commonly stalk social networks.
Facebook has a similar policy: “Facebook users need to give their real name and information, and we request you help us keep it this way.” Of course, as can be evidenced by a slew of user names out there, this isn’t very heavily patrolled. But Google is taking things more seriously in an attempt to keep things professional and generally P.C.
And it’s giving Google+ a very different atmosphere than Facebook. Facebook’s early reputation was as a haven for college kids who had outgrown MySpace’s flash but not its basic utility. Gone were the neon colors, flashing emoticons, and profiles toeing the line with porn. Facebook was a more grown up (although not overly mature), cleaner take on social networking that was primed for its original, 18-year-old demographic. Of course along the way Facebook picked up a few attributes that commercialized it a little: Games, third-party applications, Questions – a natural progression from its stark beginnings.
Now, Google+ is taking a page out of Facebook’s…book. Just as Facebook learned from MySpace's mistakes, the startup site is trying to rise above the noise of its rival, simplifying social networking and pulling out all the stops to keep out what have become some common pitfalls: Questionable identities, business pages (a boon for business owners, occasionally irritating for users – although they’re heading to the site), and controversial groups.
So why real names and no fake accounts? It’s not like these have necessarily damaged Twitter or Facebook – but it has made them slightly less credible (despite verified accounts). Getting information from a social networking site is obviously anything but best practice, but Google has earned a reputation as a generally well-regarded source for information. Apparently, this should apply to Google+ as well. “Google Profiles is a product that works best in the identified state. This way you can be certain you’re connected with the right person, and others will have confidence knowing that there is someone real behind the profile they’re checking out. For this reason, Google Profiles requires you to use the name that you commonly go by in daily life.”
Those wanting to create pun-filled usernames and celebrities wanting a profile aren’t the only ones facing challenges. Second Life avatars are forbidden, and hactivist group Anonymous’ Google+ profile was shut down, as were several of its members'. Anonymous is creating its own social networking site in response.
Google’s even mandating that profiles all be public by the end of the month: Holding a Google+ account in your real name but using it for browsing only and not allowing anyone to view your account will not be a possibility.
There are few things we take from this. One, it gives credence to the idea that social networking is generational, and that instead of one site having complete control, users will graduate. Seeing as social networking is such a new platform and that so many of those using it now were part of its origins, this is difficult to confirm or deny and only time will tell if people begin their online social lives using a certain site’s format and growing up and on to others.
Secondly, it means Google+ could very well become some sort of LinkedIn, Facebook hybrid. With the way Circles are set up and the influx of industry professionals who have taken to the site, Google+’s Stream looks nothing like Facebook’s News Feed: Sure, things are being posted and shared, but the content is much different. There are fewer drunken bar photos and more news-centric insights. How that plays out once Google launches the official version and opens up registration (not to mention when some of the applications we’ve heard are in the works are introduced) remains to be seen.
Google+ also seems to be stricter when it comes to policing content, not just users. Untoward remarks are less acceptable, and some of the behavior typical of Facebook is frowned upon--it sort of seems like Google+ users are being held to a higher standard. Moreover, it seems like Google+ is trying to avoid the cyberbullying scare Facebook and other sites have been subject to. Googler and G+ user Frances Haugen recently posted about an inappropriate comment someone had made on her post, and explained that other Google+ users had rushed to her defense. "Would this have happened in a place that didn't try to encourage people to interact like they would if they were talking face to face? In place that didn't associate people's names with what they said? Who knows," she asked.
Some have said that what Google+ really needs to take the social networking title is college kids--and the way the site is shaping up right now doesn’t convince us this will happen. At the same time, we’re not so sure a Google+ success story needs to be based on Facebook’s - or that the two can't simultaneously exist.

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Reports that broadband access, as well as mobile and Blackberry services, had been restored began to appear online early Wednesday. Internet access monitors BGPMon and Netcraft confirmed that Egyptian websites had returned to the Web. And a tweet from Google brought further confirmation.

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The Internet blackout continues in Egypt, but BlackBerry service has been restored in the largely disconnected country. Egyptian authorities shut down BlackBerry access after initially blocking social media sites like Twitter and Faebook to control political protests, and all cell phone and Internet connection quickly followed. There are now reports that BlackBerry and Vodafone are working in Cairo and in other parts of the country. It is unknown whether this is true for all of Egypt, however.

NBC Correspondent Richard Engel reported that his own BlackBerry was working in Cairo early this morning his time, noting that “I don’t think that’s going to fundamentally change the equation, but it is showing responsiveness” (see video below). ABC News’ Lara Setrakian also tweeted that cell phone service was coming back but that the Internet was still inaccessible on the 29.

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