Obsessive about Real Identity?

Second Life’s counter-culture of privacy

In the deepest corner of the Internet, hidden on co-located facilities in Gibraltar, Malta, or even Russia, popular culture imagines the Undernet: a network outside the civilised world, populated by the denizens of pornography sites, where crackers exchange software freely, where nobody uses a real name, money is laundered on online casinos, and paedophiles routinely exchange pictures on IRC.

In a sense, while this all was away on dubious websites in even more dubious locations, it was not “threatening”, because there was a feeling that, at a click of a button, you might get rid of all that.

In reality, of course, there is no “difference” between that mythical “Undernet” and, well, the Internet we use every day. Your peaceful co-worker might be a good Christian which you meet every day going to Sunday School with her kids, but during the night, she’ll be posting bondage pictures of herself on SmutVibes — while at the same time tweeting about her favourite shoe shop downtown, and talking on the “Christian Moms” group on Facebook. 🙂 Of course nothing is ever so extreme, but the point is, there are obviously some things that you’re not so keen to have revealed in public. It might just be an embarrassing picture of your cat puking on the carpet that your mother-in-law just gave you as a gift. It could be a video you made with your sweetheart last summer — but since the relation broke, you have no interest that anyone still watches the video. It might be an article you wrote about one radical leader of a left-wing organisation that you admired in your youth, but that you have long since figured out that he was actually being backed by a big megacorp. We cannot erase our pasts (or even what we do in our present!), but at least we can opt to reveal as much as we wish about it.

Even the present is not supposed to be open to public scrutiny. Imagine that you have posted a lot about your latest shopping spree and now complain to your friends on Facebook that you’re worried that you might have hit the credit card limit and need to take a second mortgage on your home — how would you feel if your bank actually gets that information delivered to your bank account manager through a profiling company? Or imagine that you’re seeking online advice from your friends regarding a failing marriage, but definitely don’t wish your kids to know about what you’re discussing — but since your timeline is open to the public, and Twitter can be accessed by anyone, your kids quickly find out about it? You can think of several examples on how some information, which might be directly relevant to a group of friends, shouldn’t be available to the public — not even a profiling company which “promises” you not to reveal any of your data to third parties. How can you trust companies like Twitter and Facebook not to do so, if their business is all about profiling data? (and of course they’re not the only ones; Google is probably even better than them, just a bit more quiet — except when it comes to explain to customers how Google AdSense works).

It is true that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” — but that’s a typical conservative, right-wing approach to security, privacy, and identity. In such an Orwellian dystopia, honest people can be watched by webcams in their own homes. But it will also mean that perfectly legitimate and honest activity — like, say, grumbling out loud that your employer is a pain in the ass — might be overheard by someone who simply ought not to have the right to that private information. If you have freedom of expression, you ought to be allowed to complain about your employer, even in public, but most definitely in private — without fearing a libel suit.

If you have guaranteed anonymity, you might even go a step further: even in a country without freedom of expression, you will be able to talk about whatever you wish — the most recent example being the case of Iran protesters, but history has shown us, with millions of examples, how important it is to be able to protect your identity in order to be “protected” from your own Government as well. This is even a fundamental human right (Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

You cannot say that any of these websites are actually committing a crime against human rights by violating your privacy and forcing you to reveal your identity in public. You’re not forced to use any of those services. And this is an interesting paradox. For instance, right now, it’s next-to-impossible, over most of the Western world, to get a skilled job without an e-mail address (unskilled jobs are still fine). At some point you really will need to have an email address. Even some Governments, while not ostracising citizens without email addresses, will seriously encourage you to get one, so that you can, for instance, pay your taxes online and get a receipt by email.

Now imagine that these social websites become even more widespread. Already a sixth of the Internet population has a Facebook account; a fifth has a Gmail account. It is not impossible to imagine a date in the future that “having a Facebook account” is mandatory. It’ll start with companies recruiting people — they will frown upon someone who hasn’t a Facebook account, since they will find them “revolutionaries” or “non-comformists” or simply too weird, and not worth of being hired. We’re still a long way before that actually happens, but the way is definitely paved for that. Or perhaps not? Wallace Linden already publicly claims:

Both Google (via Friend Connect) and Facebook (via Facebook Connect) already offer services designed to take the place of your Social Security Number or national ID in the new century, and the competition among them and other players to control who you are is only due to heat up.

So while you can always say, “sorry, I don’t have a Facebook account, because they don’t allow me the level of privacy I require”, but won’t that sound pathetic in an era where nobody cares about privacy any longer? If I were writing this article in 1990, I’d be called out as merely attempting to write a bad pastiche of Orwell’s “1984” and laughed at. In 2000, I’d be seen as a pessimist. After 9/11, I’d be labelled as someone encouraging terrorists to become widespread by defending the rights of people to stay anonymous on the ‘net. In 2010, the battle is lost; we can only speculate about how long it takes. Probably as long as the RIAA to disappear, e.g., not very much.

It’s at this point where Second Life almost seems an anachronism. From all the changes sweeping through the net, encouraging people to share more and more about their real lives, virtual worlds, by contrast, still have a strong position regarding privacy. It’s like they are the last bastion of privacy, an isolated island, but slowly sinking in the ocean. Both business and academia are strongly pushing for privacy to end in Second Life — mostly because they have this delusion that fighting privacy means “more honesty” (and having as a side-effect the end of adult content and illegal gambling in SL). And while LL has not abandoned privacy altogether, M Linden seems to be giving out signals that the end might be near. Wallace Linden’s article only reinforces that position. Hamlet Au on New World Notes claims on a poll that “over a third publicly associate their First Life identity and name with their Second Life activity” (the fact that two-thirds don’t have anything to do with that is grossly misrepresented…).

But the notion that “less privacy” means “more honesty” is a stupid fallacy, that can only be believed by very naive people — which, sadly, are by far in the majority.

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