Nowhere to hide? Panellists argue over making real, full names a blanket rule online

Daisy BlacklockYouGovLabs writer
August 02, 2012, 2:59 PM GMT+0

Do you post under your real name online? According to Mashable, video-uploading hub YouTube is attempting to inspire a shift towards just that by encouraging its users to post comments and videos under their full, real name.

Or, if that option really doesn’t appeal, to at least register why it is they’re not so keen to give up their alter-ego on the video-sharing site – if that person represents a company or brand, for example, or that revealing their identity would put them in danger.

Operating under a pseudonym is for many of us an unthinking part of how we go about our day-to-day internet-based activity. Often we assume our alternate selves through habit or rote – as IDs formulated from random combinations of our ages or surnames for school or work log-ins, or which bow down to our 13 year-old obsessions.

Sometimes, they free us up to speak more frankly than we’d feel able to in a face-to-face conversation. And sometimes, people use their anonymity to abuse, intimidate, or throw-off course – hence the 21st century phenomenon that is the internet ‘troll’.

In MediaLab, we thought YouTube’s policy change cast up an interesting talking point around the necessity and attraction of using one’s real names, versus an alias, as a general point of principle when online.

We asked:

  • Should internet users have to give their real names when commenting or uploading things to the internet, or do you think people should be able to conduct themselves anonymously?

Of the YouGov panellists who took part to discuss the matter, most vocal were those who felt that internet users should not be obliged to disclose their real, full name, for the following reasons:

  • For privacy and personal safety’s sake, it was important for users to be able to use a pseudonym or function in anonymity online, to protect their identity against fraud, and to avoid other forms of abuse.

  • Children in particular would be vulnerable, came one argument.
  • While anonymity and being able to adopt aliases were ‘part of the appeal’ of being online, reasoned others
  • Some felt that forcing people to use their real names for all online activity would go against the freedom of the internet – and be impossible to implement. And “why now?” asked one participant; people have a ‘right’ to anonymity:

“It could put people off due to fears of retribution” Simon, North Cornwall

“It is an infringement of privacy to force people to use their real names. It could lead to safety issues” Shaz, Birmingham

“Many people may have genuine reasons to desire anonymity or to use a different name…” Alex, Edinburgh

“It allows more free discussion by removing the fear of retaliation for commenters and posters” A.W., Teesside

“It’s called freedom” J.N.

  • Then other individuals raised points that there was a long tradition of anonymous submissions and creativity, that had, for example, enabled women to publish under male pen-names, or, looking to the Arab Spring uprisings, allowed rebels and civilians to transmit their experiences of revolution on-the-go. And it was thought by another that being able to forge an identity of your choosing was ‘more personal’:

“Look at how social media carried news of the Arab Spring around the world at breakneck speed. If those people had to put up their real names, most of them would be in boxes now” Anon

“It allows people to express their true feelings in an e-environment” A. K., Bradford

“People have an on-line 'username' as lots of people have the same name (e.g. John Smith). So they create a username that reflects their interests/personality - therefore it is more personal” Emma P, London

But in the “should use real name” corner, the panellists who held this view tended to:

  • Equate anonymity online with a lack of accountability for bad behaviour – either by making unsubstantiated remarks, or being able to hurl abuse without fear of retribution. One participant neatly captured the logic behind supporting using real names across the internet as follows: “anyone who isn't willing to 'sign' their comments shouldn't be able to make them” (Anon)

“It should be possible to identify internet users and locate them. Anonymity means someone is not prepared to stand by their view” David, Cambridge

“If you have an opinion, you should be willing to put your name to it” Mark, London

  • Then two secondary arguments followed on from this. One reasoned that only those with something to hide would be against not using real, full names online, while others said that enforcing this would enable rogues and abusers to be identified and dealt with accordingly:

“If that is their honest view then there is no reason why they should be ashamed to hide their identity” Alan, Mid Glamorgan

“If they make racist or very inappropriate comments then it’s easier to identify them and punish them” Anon

Should internet users have to give their real names when posting online?

Or should we be able to conduct ourselves anonymously, without compromise?