Global Ethics Corner: Privacy and Responsibility on the Internet: Who Should Control your Identity on the Web?

November 18, 2011

Who should control your identity on the Internet? Should you be free to pick and chose among multiple personas? Or should you be expected to adhere to a single, authentic identity online, as you would offline?

In an age when bills are paid via PayPal, relationships are forged over Facebook, and revolutions are fueled by Twitter, these questions are taking on new prominence. How we answer them may define the Internet for years to come.

The deactivation of Salman Rushdie's Facebook account recently revived debate over Internet Identity. Facebook mistook the well-known, controversial writer for an impersonator. After forcing the author to prove his true identity, Facebook demanded that Rushdie call himself by his legal name, Ahmed.

Though Salman Rushdie's Facebook account soon reappeared online, the debacle points to a vibrant debate long brewing in the blogosphere: the conflict over Internet Identity and who should control it.

Advocates of Internet "pseudonymity" argue web users should be free to craft identities that reveal some, but not all, of who they are. Twitter, for example, allows its users to adopt identities of their choosing. The company says such anonymity is vital to free speech and democracy. Had Egyptian activists been forced to reveal their names in their Tweets, many more would have faced arrest.

But as advocates cite politics, critics cite civility. Companies like Google and Facebook say that web authenticity is key to an open, safe, and accountable Internet experience. If users don't stick to their real names, no one will trust the social medium and we all lose out.

As Internet heavy weights decide the fate of Internet anonymity, where do you stand? Who are you when you're on the Web?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Somini Sengupta, "Rushdie Runs Afoul of Web’s Real-Name Police," The New York Times, November 14, 2011

Anders Sandberg, "The Nym Wars: How Many Identities Are Enough?" Practical Ethics: Ethics in the News (Blog, University of Oxford), August 22, 2011

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance:

Thomas Hawk
ALA The American Library Association
Marco Paköeningrat
Dimitris Kalogeropoylos
Bev Sykes
Floris Van Cauwelaert
Joi Ito
Brian Solis

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