As most probably know, the full release of the "worldwide web" part of the Internet didn't really start happening until 1994 (though, obviously, the HTTP protocol existed for a few years before that as it was started, and then ramped-up during testing). As soon, thereafter, as 1995, then, I wrote a piece about Internet privacy which got published on what was then the magazine-like Time-Warner "PathFinder" website. It also got picked-up (with my permission, of course) by several other sites, and two print publications; and it eventually got used in several undergrad papers, and was cited in at least three masters thesis that I know of. I also got about a dozen requests from colleges and law schools to include it in currcula...
...to all of which I said "yes," and for none of which I got paid. I say all that not to brag, but, rather, because it was just so cool to learn that my words ended-up in somebody's published masters thesis, just for starters! I couldn't believe it. Lil' ol' me. Who ever woulda' thunk it. But now I'm digressing. Sorry.
The other reason I mention it is because I want to describe what's happened since, and what I've learned from it.
The upshot of the piece was that there should be no anonymity on the Internet; that every person should be uniquely identifiable at least when it comes to things said person writes and posts online. I never suggested that people's privacy should be violated by them being uniquely identifiable to search engines, or web sites just because they visited them, or to ad servers or anything like that. I never meant that. But I definitely believed, back then, despite my having always been a liberal/progressive and lifelong Democrat, that no one should be allowed to write and post anything (which, by logical extension, would include the now-possible (but then, not) posting of, for example, YouTube videos) anonymously.
And the reason, my piece argued, is that the danger of the kind of reputation-smearing libel and other general defamation that was possible on the Internet -- and which could be exceedingly effective because of it -- so far eclipsed any similar damage possible by pre-Internet techniques that a whole new way of thinking of things was called for.
On the Internet, I argued in the piece, anyone with ten bucks a month, a telephone line, and a computer with a modem in it, could get online and post anything and everything that s/he wanted, anonymously, about anyone, even if not true, with impunity. And because the Internet had such capability for such lies to be spread around the world in an instant, I argued that no one should be allowed to tell them anonymously (or under a pseudonym).
My rationale was that people would be more responsible if everything they did online was as their real selves; that they'd be as concerned about their responsibilities under the implied social contract -- and behaving pursuant thereto -- whenever they were online as they would be in person (ostensibly because they were the same people online as they were in real life; subject to the same social mores and other societal pressure to not act a fool in both places).
I predicted that unless anonymity were disallowed, people would defame one another mercilessly and prolifically; and that, as a result, horrible and awful things would be posted about a person that others might believe, and so said person might lose a job (or not be hired for one), or be ostracized or socially shunned, or not allowed to join a club or a church, or have his/her boyfriend/girlfriend -- or worse, husband or wife -- break-up with or leave him/her...
...and so on, and so on, and so on. I predicted that lives would be ruined; that suicides would be committed; that careers would end...
...every last one of which predictions has come true, in spades.
My own activism in life has caused things to be posted about me -- horrible, despicable, wholly untrue things -- online which have, even though they're lies, cost me consulting clients (or caused prospective ones not to retain me), caused my wife's family to wonder with whom she had mated, caused a church I wanted to join to hesitate, and even caused the church body which ultimately ordained me to wonder if they had made a mistake...
...all because anyone with a computer with a means of Internet connectivity, and the money to pay for it, pretend s/he's anyone s/he wants, and say anything -- and I mean ANYTHING, no matter how depraved -- about anyone, with impunity.
In its worst forms, the ability to be anonymous has even helped people commit crimes... often -- usually, in fact -- also with impunty...
...exactly as I predicted, 17 years (at this writing) ago, when the worldwide web part of the Internet was but a baby, would happen. I was, I must say, downright prophetic.
I was also, the civil libertarian in me as since come to realize, wrong... at least about what should be done to prevent such defamation in the form of prohibiting anonymity.
I could not, in fact, have been MORE wrong. Were it not for the importannt lessons I've since learned from it, and how they've actually made my life better, I'd be ashamed, today, for my having even written that piece back in 1995. I wish, sometimes, that I could tell those who cited it in their masters thesis that I've since learned my lesson; that I didn't mean it; that I want to take it back.
Had it not been for anonymity -- in the form of political pamphleteering, and the posting of bills on trees and the sides of barns and other buildings back in the 18th century -- this great nation of ours... this grand experiment in representative democracy... this beloved democratic republic and its very liberties for which we've fought and died...
...were it not for anonymity as this nation was in its hard-fought and won 18th century infancy and formation, we, today, would not be free. Simple as that.
Speaking out -- speaking truth to power -- has always had consequences... some of them dire; even, sometimes, mortal. It is obviously most desirable that those who opine and/or call for change so do under their own names, proudly wearing their words which, because they so do, are most likely to be well-considered and deeply-believed. Doing it that way has, no question about it, the most integrity.
And courage, too... because sometimes it got people injured or even killed. It often, in any case, got them ostracized, ridiculed, fired, even sometimes arrested. Again, consequences.
Nothing -- not one single thing -- in that regard, has changed in the ensuing nearly three centuries. Nothing.
Speaking out -- speaking truth to power -- still has consequences... and though one is less likely to be arrested, injured or killed (at least not institutionally; not, at least in the US) for them, said consequences are often still greater than even the courageous are willing to accept. Life is short. It's hard to find a cause for which one is willing to have one's life effectively ruined over it.
None of that has made any difference to me, of course. I've always said exactly what I believed, consequences be damned! And I've always, always done it under my own name. No pseudonyms. No aliases. No games. When I say or writ it, I so do as ME. Period.
And I've endured consequences, indeed, for it... some of them life changing... some even life's oppotunities stopping. The price I've paid for my freedom of expression has been high, indeed.
But were it not for those before me who fought for that freedom having been able to so do anonymously, I'd not have been able to say it at all.
Indeed, the world, itself, absent the social conscience which is the United States and its unceasing demand of the rest of the world that it behave ethicallly and honorably, that it not violate the civil rights of its people, that it treat them with fairness and dignity...
...even, yes, even when we, ourselves, have not always so done...
...indeed, the world, itself, without all that, would be very, very, very different. Unlivable, in fact, I dare suggest. And all because those who created this great nation used anonymity to spread its glorious message.
I could not, then, have been more wrong in 1995... at least as to my suggestion that no one should be allowed to post anything anonymously (or using a pseudonym or alias) online. I simply could not have been more wrong.
And thankgod no one else thought so, else we might not actually have anonymity online, and so such as the Arab Spring, just to name one thing, might never have happened. Remember that smartphones and Facebook, and the communications capabilities they provided, played a huge role in the organizing for civil unrest which resulted in what started in Egypt and Libya, and which is now rolling across the Middle East like a storm of (at least potential) freedom. Between the Internet, and Al Jazeera, there might actually be half a chance that the world won't come to an end because of unrest in that part of the world...
...that is, if we can stop Iran from blowing it all up anytime soon.
YouTube, it's worthy of note, also played an immense role in the Arab Spring and all that has since emerged therefrom. The Occupy Movement, too. Without the articles and videos posted on Facebook, and the videos and comments posted on YouTube, neither the Arab Spring, nor the Occupy Movement, would have been as effective as they were. Thank goodness, then, for them.
How ironic it is, then -- and also sad, I posit -- that YouTube would be the very entity that now leads the charge of challenging those on the Internet's rights to anonymity (or, perhaps more accurately, to psuedonymity). We can only speculate about Google's reasons, but I can just about guarantee that they were not as pure as were mine, wrong-headed though I've since realized them to be, back in 1995. Google, I promise, has nothing in mind as its reasons for wanting everyone to use their real names which is as honorable as ensuring that no one's life could be ruined through online defamation that's capable of being spread around the globe at the speed of light through the Internet. Such were my reasons in 1995, but they're almost certainly not Google's now.
Google's reasons, no doubt, are purely profit-motivated. By getting us to use our real names on YouTube, we begin the inevitable march down the awful road toward our ultimate loss of both anonymity and pseudonimity to ends which, because we then become uniquely identifiable to the likes of YouTube's advertisers, only benefit Google and those who stand to make money from us and their knowledge of our online actions. It is the very definition -- the poster child -- of the very intentional opposite of what privacy policies were all about in the first place. It is, in fact, the beginning of the end of privacy. Period.
I wasn't thinking about any of that back in 1995 when I wrote that piece. But I've figured it out since; and so I've always been comforted by that there are both privacy policies, and also anonymity. Indeed, I've paid a high price in life, in terms of how I've been defamed and its consequences, for my right to freely both speak and write. The price we pay for our liberties has always -- and rightly -- been high. But I now realize that we must -- all of us -- insist on having it no other way, no matter the potential defamation consequences for us.
Of course I'd love to know the true identities of those who've either anonymously (or by pseudonym or alias) defamed me; and if I bothered to sue them, of course I could find out who they are, and hold them accountable, through the magic and magnificant power of the almighty subpeona (a potent tool THAT can be in the hands of someone like me who knows how to use it). But at what cost. At what point does it just become not worth it, especially considering that I've long since figured out excellent ways to set the record straight about myself with those who've stumbled-onto bad things written about me online, and who either question me about them or, somewhat less courageously, hold me accountable by depriving me of some of life's opportunties.
If we expect to hold-on to our precious liberties, then we must exercise them. We must use them to both effect change, and to also stop the corporate creep of liberty-depriving actions such as Google's prodding us to use our real names.
I use my real name, always, because I want it that way. I want to wear everything I write and do online, with no question or ambiguity about that it was me who wrote or did it, and that I bygod meant it. That's my choice. However, to write and do things online (or to say them in YouTube vidoes) under a pseudonym -- effectively, then, anonymously -- is an equally valid and also honorable choice... even if what is said or written is defamatory. Remember that censorship is not defamation's legal remedy. Rather, pursuing a civil action in a court of law is the appropriate response. So even though I, more than anyone, know the pain of having been anonymously defamed, I cannot and will not demand that my defamers are no longer allowed to be anonymous online while they do it. The right to pamphleteer and post bills, anonymously, is as important today as it was almost three centuries ago.
But we must USE such rights...
...in this case, to stop the likes of Google from stripping us of our anonymity, if we choose to use it. And here's the thing, and this is important: With the US Supreme Court having ruled that even corporations are people for free speech purposes (pursuant to 2010's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50), it's going to become a question of how many Americans will stand-up to however many dollars corporate America can muster to fight us. If we do not, every last one of us, stand-up and be counted by exercising our rights to speak and act online, even anonymously, then we will lose those rights.
And the likes of Google will win.
Please don't make me, 17 years from now, prophetic about that, too.
Gregg L. DesElms
Napa, California USA
gregg at greggdeselms dot com