Musings on the tension between trust and anonymity

By November 27, 2012 No Comments

Google just changed the Google Play store so that reviewers’ Google+ name and profile picture are visible, with no option for anonymity, writes Techcrunch.

I think this is a good move because identity engenders trust and the lack of trust on the web relative to offline is one of the things that holds people back from using and enjoying the web more. This is a complex issue and forcing users to reveal themselves is no panacea, but it helps with the biggest problem with reviews – people don’t know whether they are genuine.

I think this point about identity engendering trust extend beyond reviews to all online services. Offline we unthinkingly take stock of the people that we interact using a large number of non-verbal cues and identity enables us to do some of the same online. This is why interacting with people on Facebook feels better to most people than interacting with people on anonymous user groups. I think it is also why most people choose to have photos of themselves as their profile picture.

The other big benefit of forcing people to post under their real identity is that they generally behave more reasonably.

That said, this isn’t a black and white issue and there are situations where anonymity is a good thing. Whistleblowers and people reviewing products they don’t want to admit to owning are examples given in the comments to the Techcrunch post. Political rebels in authoritarian states are another obvious case. But to me these are edge cases and we shouldn’t design the architecture of the web around them. Moreover, whistleblowers and revolutionaries can find workarounds, including setting up fake accounts or using other services.

Finally, a word on the nightmare scenario of an authoritarian government using modern technology to control its population to nefarious ends. I guess my thoughts are that reducing anonymity increases the scope for abuse, but not meaningfully as for a while now there has been more than enough tech available for governments to take total control should they so wish. The right way to protect ourselves is to invest in and support our political systems rather than put controls on particular pieces of technology. I would argue that not only is this the right way, it is the only way, as any controls put in place by one government or regulator can be removed by another.