Identities and Censorship

Pseudonymity

One excellent point brought up during our breakfast presentation in the CCT lounge (their journal, Gnovis, posted a write-up of it by Margarita Rayzberg) was that one coping mechanism for lack of privacy controls on an SNS or within an intrusive state is to create fake profiles and characters and pseudonyms in order to operate online.

(Outside our discussion, I want to quickly add, why Asians are more comfortable with avatars, pseudonyms, and anime in representing themselves online?)

Anyway, in my privacy controls post, I showed just how extensive Facebook’s privacy controls are.  This allows people to feel more secure about putting more information into Facebook’s databases because, whether they use those controls or not, they feel as though they can control their own data.

But Brazil uses Orkut, which has fairly weak controls relative to the rest of the spectrum of SNSs (Myspace excluded).  I am not sure if Brazilians fear government intrusiveness into their day-to-days, since I haven’t done the research yet, so if they are using fake profiles quite often, then it might be because they are uncomfortable sharing info that those in their peer group or real life may view.  We see this phenomenon here in the US with Myspace users.  Younger users are encouraged to create fake profiles to hide from their parents, unauthenticated classmates, and other outside, threatening players in their lives.

I would argue that pseudonymity has an unappreciated role online.  Anonymity has been with us since the start, back to “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog”.  Certainly much has been made about verified identity online, to facilitate trade and commerce — it wasn’t long ago that people refused to shop online for fear of fraud, an irrational fear as it turned out.

Pseudonymity has been discussed at length as well, as most outsiders see it as escapism from reality and compensating for missing traits in real-world personality.  But it also allows, at the identity layer level, for a blend of authentication and anonymity to make up for the lack of identity tools to properly set the level of privacy you’re comfortable with online.  You may want to be anonymous to all those who know you in real life, but you want to be known online within a certain community.  So you take a handle or nickname and create a reputation around it.

Censorship

The Yahoo!/ISD fellowship was originally created with the help of Michael Samway, Yahoo!’s VP and general counsel of human rights efforts and a former Georgetown MSFS alumnus, in response to a case of censorship by the Chinese government with the collaboration of Yahoo!.

The NYTimes this weekend published a long article called “Google’s Gatekeepers”, which describes a case involving Google’s YouTube property and Turkey’s blocking YouTube because of videos from Greece that defamed the founder of modern Turkey, which is a crime there.  This spurred a look into how Google decides which videos get taken down and why.

What should companies do about issues such as this?  Should they concede to governments’ wishes in order to stay in the market, particularly one as delectable as China’s?  If they decide to stick to principles of free speech and user protection, they risk being banned, while their competitors could decide to concede and gain the lost market share.

For now, multiple stakeholders have formed the Global Network Initiative in order to collaborate and work together to ensure freedom of speech and privacy; it remains to be seen who will cooperate with the group and who will break apart, and whether they can exert enough leverage on governments to back off from censorship.

The Little Guy

What I am primarily concerned with in my research is how all this affects the little guy.  You, me, those in BRIC countries.  How do different countries’ users approach social media usage, knowing the risks they take both socially and from their governments?  From some discussions I’ve had (but with nothing concrete to back it up), it seems as though Chinese users have a good sense of where the line is when saying something potentially risky in the government’s eyes.  It’s hard to draw such a line when it comes to what one can say within his social network, though, since there are many more actors and attitudes and roles of relationships with that person.  In other words, what you would say if you knew your mom was listening and what you would say if your best friend or boss were listening would be markedly different.  At least you know in China fairly reasonably what you should and shouldn’t say in order to get the government censors concerned.

With that in mind, I think my privacy model holds well, although I’ve learned from our CCT chat and various other discussions to modify some of the language and words used, since each word has very specific meanings and inferences.

Your True Identity

The last thing I want to talk about here is with regards to hiding your true identity, as in your real life identity.  In my “What’s Shaping the Internet” class (also in the CCT department), one of my colleagues did a presentation on Chinese censorship.  One thing I started thinking deeply about through the pre-class reading was that foreign companies use tunneling and encrypted networks to pass through the Chinese firewall (or “Golden Shield”) in order to phone home to their offices.  Both technically (encrypted tunneling is hard to defeat or wiretap) and commercially (if foreign companies have no privacy, then they would object and would pull business out for fear of losing trade secrets or more), encrypted networks and VPNs within China seem untouchable.

This ability can’t necessarily be said for regular Chinese citizens, who must find a secure connection to use in order to start tunneling securely.  But it brings up the interesting question:  how much tunneling do Chinese citizens engage in?

And would it really help them as far as SNSs go if they could tunnel out?  SNSs are huge in China and by statistics we’ve discussed earlier, Chinese use social media far more than Americans do.

But at some point, can you really escape who you are?  If you could post about yourself on computers based in a country that protects free speech, you’re still at some level talking about metadata that links back to your identity back home.  If you were to scrub all your information of your real name or pseudonym, it would not take much work to find out where you live, what you do, and who you know.  It would then not be much of a stretch to find you.  Your personal data is horribly non-anonymous whether you’re Publius or Joe Klein.

So we’re led back to the beginning of this post, resorting to using pseudonyms to create completely fictional characters that anonymize our real life personas.

  • Hey Ben,

    I just posted the paper I finished about American Internet companies operating in China and how they can combat censorship beyond the GNI. http://www.kevindonovan.org/schoolpapers

    Also, have you seen the discussion of the Lorie Drew case and how it could end pseudonyms online? It would be pretty terrible if law ended such free speech enabling practices.

  • Hey Kevin, thanks for the link to your papers. As you know from my e-mails, I liked them quite a bit!

    I read briefly about the Lorie Drew case and you’re right about pseudonyms. I don’t think there’d ever be enough political capital to get rid of them but clearly they need to be actively promoted for the benefits they provide; I think most people probably just appreciate them because they use them routinely every day…[editing out my snarky comment about what congressmen do online under pseudonyms =) ]

  • João Leite

    The case of pseudonyms in Brazil has to do with a feature of Orkut that tells you which profiles have visited your profile recently.
    It is possible to deactivate it, so when you visit a profile, the other person will not know that you were the visitor, but neither you will know who has been visiting your profile. Thus, it is common to have a true profile with this feature activated (to see who has been visiting your page) and to have also a fake profile (people refer to it as “fake”, using the english word) that enables you to check out unnoticed other people’s profiles. This behavior has less to do with the government than it has to do with ex-girlfriends.