NEWS FROM THE LAB - Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Are Facebook Comments the Death of Anonymity? Posted by Sean @ 18:38 GMT

Facebook recently announced a major overall of their comments system. The new changes will allow Facebook users to comment on third-party websites using their profiles. Supporters of the new system hope that it will help in combating Internet trolls and comment spam because Facebook accounts typically use real names. Critics of the system argue that it's a threat to free speech.

A number of critics have cited this quote by Mark Zuckerberg, from The Facebook Effect: "You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly … Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."

Reactions among social activists have not been positive. But really, why? Is having only one identity really such a strange concept?

Other than The Batman, who really needs more than one identity?

I only have one identity. I also have an alias on Twitter, @FSLabsAdvisor, and you can probably tell based on its name, it's a work related account and primarily reflects my work persona as a public spokesperson of F-Secure. It's directly connected to my identity, but only represents a particular side of my personality.

I have multiple aliases on the Internet, a couple of them are anonymous, but I only need one identity.

Maintaining identity, privacy and integrity on the Internet can be a tricky thing — take Sarah Palin for example. About three weeks ago, Jack Stuef at Wonkette wrote that Palin maintained a personal Facebook account using the name "Lou Sarah". (Palin's middle name is Louise.) Stuef's take on the story was that Palin had a "secret" account to praise her "Sarah Palin" account. And he doesn't seem to take her Lou Sarah account as a sign of great integrity.

It was quite a good catch, but Stuef didn't get it entirely right. The Sarah Palin account is not a "profile". It is a special type of hybrid "page" for celebrities that behaves as a profile. But it's really just a page and part of Sarah Palin's personal brand. It's very likely that the page is entirely administered by her public relations team.

A lot of people wanting to manage their privacy create anonymous Facebook accounts. Many people clearly want aliases. I suspect that a great deal of the backlash directed at Zuckerberg is due to the fact that having multiple accounts per individual is a violation of Facebook's Terms of Service, and Zuck says stuff that makes them sound like criminals.

I think some of the backlash is deserved.

Facebook's corporate line is that you should only friend people that you actually know. But Facebook makes a lot of money from partnerships with social game companies such as Zynga. Social gaming is a form of casual gaming, and casual gaming encourages the formation of casual friendships. Facebook profits are in part driven by the formation of casual friendships.

You can't have your cake and eat it too.

I've seen lots of examples where people have created secondary accounts to play Facebook games with "virtual" friends. As long as Facebook profits from casual friendships, they need to find a way to better protect their users' privacy. Facebook needs to step up and offer users some sort of aliases, or else they need adjust their TOS.

I'm not holding my breath.

But how about Facebook's new commenting system?

Is it the death of anonymity and free speech?

Probably not. There's a "backdoor" method which is already being used to comment anonymously.


TechCrunch buried this lead in their initial story: "Incidentally, it's also now possible to leave a comment on an external site as a Facebook Page, which means we could see brands use Facebook to leave 'official' comments on blog posts."

So here's an example of what you can do — create a fictional character.

My character is named "Jaajo Jantteri". And I hold the copyright so I'm in full compliance with Facebook's Page Terms.

Jaajo Jantteri

Next, visit a site testing the new comments, such as TechCrunch. Select the alias of your choice.

Leave Comments

And comment.

Hello world

Now we just need to hope that trolls and spammers won't want to do the same.

But hey, if Facebook wants to move the battleground within their walled garden, I say, let them.