Monday, January 19, 2015

Internet Anonymity

            Recently, Canada instated a new law to help prevent internet piracy. This law allows copyright holders to request internet companies to issue warnings to people who have illegally downloaded content. For example, if you were to download a song from your favourite band, the band could have your internet service provider inform you that continuing to download more of their songs could lead to a law suit. Your identity and personal information would remain confidential, but could be made available if legal action is taken (a nice balance between respecting privacy and enforcing copyright laws).

            This got me thinking, as you may have guessed, about the anonymity of people on the internet. In and of itself, the internet has become almost a whole world of its own. People on the internet can be whoever they claim to be and do what they like with few (or no) consequences. This anonymity has many benefits, particularly relating to privacy, but it also has the negative flip side – bullying, scams, viruses, piracy and various illegal activities.

            So, I'm wondering... what would happen if the anonymity of the internet was taken away?

            I'm not saying that I think this should happen, or even that it could – it would require the agreement of the entire world and we all know how likely that is to happen – I'm merely wanting to explore it as a theoretical exercise.

            If every time someone logged into the internet, wherever they went, their real names and faces would be registered. If, every time they interacted with people online, it was with their real names and faces. Would people behave differently?

            Personally, I think they would. The risk of going to illegal download sites or other sites they don’t want people to know they've been on would be greater – and if that is enough incentive to stop them from going, maybe they shouldn't be going there in the first place. People who bully online would no longer be hiding behind false personas. The risk of being banned from a site or online game would be greater if they were getting banned, rather than just the account that they could make a new one of.

Simply by removing anonymity, the internet could become a much friendlier place.

            Of course, there’s always a flip side. The first thing that comes to mind are predators, although they could be tracked by their true identity online as easily as their prey. So, the real problem would become the new generation of hackers specialising in using other peoples’ identities online – possibly an increase in the ease of identity theft. Would it be possible to police such activities? In a world where anonymity on the internet was abolished, would our society have evolved to a point where nothing can be gained from identity theft?

            It’s an interesting thought, really, especially with recent generations who've gotten used to their anonymity online. It really isn't as big a step as we think. Internet service providers already track the websites we go to (even though the information is kept confidential) and there is so much information on the internet that even the basic internet security that we teach isn't always enough.

            As a perfect example, I’ll tell you a story of my own youth. I spent much of my early teens playing massively multi-player online role playing games – particularly one called Runescape. My awareness of internet security was impeccable – bordering on the paranoid. I never gave out my name and the closest I’d come to telling someone where I lived was my province or country. I gave out very few personal details, even to the closest of my online friends.

            One my friends on Runscape was a Dutch woman name Paula who was around the same age as my parents and had kids my age. We became so close that we started referring to her as my Dutch Mom. Still, I didn't give her much information on myself, so you can imagine my surprise when I received a birthday card in the mail from her on my 16th birthday.

            I’m fairly certain I’d only given her the month of my birthday. As to how she found my address... that came from small, unimportant pieces of information I let drop in casual conversation. She knew my country and province, my first name, a famous hockey player who was born in my city, and that my parents owned (at the time) a driving school (of which there were several in town). With that small amount of information, she’d was able to find me – and that was ten years ago when there was far less information available on the internet.

            So, as I said, we’re already not as anonymous as we think. The question is, would the internet become better/safer or worse with the removal of anonymity? What do you think?

Click here to find the charity anthology containing a couple of my short stories.

To see my chainmaille, click here.

If there's any subject you'd like to see me ramble on about, feel free to leave a comment asking me to do so.

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