The Wired article ("Great Wall of Facebook: The Social Network's Plan to Dominate the Internet -- and Keep Google Out") I discussed yesterday touched on another issue near & dear to my heart (besides the importance of smarter advertising): the future of online anonymity. The article lays out Facebook's "4-Step Plan for Online Domination," which involves "colonizing" the web though Facebook's Connect (launched Dec. 2008) and Open Stream API (launched April 2009) initiatives, which:
don't just allow users to access their Facebook networks from anywhere online. They also help realize Facebook's longtime vision of giving users a unique, Web-wide online profile. By linking Web activity to Facebook accounts, they begin to replace the largely anonymous "no one knows you're a dog" version of online identity with one in which every action is tied to who users really are.
To hear Facebook executives tell it, this will make online interactions more meaningful and more personal. Imagine, for example, if online comments were written by people using their real names rather than by anonymous trolls. "Up until now all the advancements in technology have said information and data are the most important thing," says Dave Morin, Facebook's senior platform manager. "The most important thing to us is that there is a person sitting behind that keyboard. We think the Internet is about people."
Some free speech advocates are sure to bemoan Identity Integration as directly undermining online anonymity.
But as long as such a trend is voluntary, driven by the desire of users to integrate their online presence to make it more manageable, I think Identity Integration will be a good thing not only for users, but also for free speech. As the recent use of social media by the Iranian opposition has amply demonstrated, sites like Facebook and Twitter are more than just "social networks": they are online speech platforms that profoundly democratize communications. Integrating my online soapboxes amplifies my voice--for example, by letting me easily share my comments on scattered blogs with my friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter.
But, of course, if Identity Integration increases the user's perception that "someone" might be monitoring what they say online, and might punish them for it, either in a tort suit or... a torture chamber, online speech will certainly be chilled, even if it is more "effective" on some level. Identity Integration will certainly make it easier for a plaintiff to identify who posted a defamatory comment about them, but still not automatic. Sites like Facebook will face increased pressure to divulge identifying information about their users. Even if an allegedly defamatory comment on a blog is tied to the Facebook profile of what appears to be a real person, a plaintiff complaining about that comment would still need to prove to some degree of certainty who actually posted the comment. As social networking sites increasingly become a "critical chokepoint" of online identity, they will probably face pressure to do one or both of the following:
Rather than criticize online intermediaries for developing Identity Integration technologies that make it easier to identify online speakers, free speech advocates need to be willing to do two things: