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Submitted by Ben Wagner on 31 May 2013
Why does anybody use his or her real name on the Internet? Can’t everybody just use a nickname? Why does anybody care what you call yourself on the Internet?
There has been a lot of debate on whether it’s a good idea for people to use their real names online. Many people argue that the Internet is a better place when people use their real names, as it leads to more ‘civil’ conversations where people can’t hide behind their anonymity. The most prominent exponent of this position is Facebook, which consistently claims that their network is a better place because of its real name policy. Whether this is true or not is an open question and there is little empirical research to prove this point either way.
There are also many politicians who claim that the Internet is a better place when real names are used. They claim that the Internet is both more civil and police are more easily able to do their job if everyone just uses their real name. This argument is typically brought forth in response to Internet crimes as a way of civilising the Internet and allowing police and security service to just do their jobs without the hassle of looking up individuals first. In some cases it is even suggested that the government should force people using social networks to use their real names.
Here there is a cautionary tale from South Korea. Laws in South Korea forced Internet users to sign up to social networking sites with the real name and social security number to prove their identity. This meant that every social network user was linked to a real identity. However this proved to be highly problematic when the largest social network in South Korea, Cyworld, was hacked. 35 million Internet users – or around 85% of all Internet users in South Korea - had their personal details stolen which explicitly included user names, passwords, social security numbers, mobile phone numbers, email addresses and personal photographs. The perpetrators of the attack have never been identified. For a country of a little less that 50 million people, having the private data of 35 million people stolen is huge. After the attack the South Korean communications regulator announced a review of the policy and eventually the South Korea Supreme Court announced that the policy was unconstitutional.
Real name policies may initially seem attractive, but they come with consequences that are difficult to overlook. As the South Korean example shows, real name policies have considerable potential to have negative effects on users. At the same time sites like Facebook have made them corporate policy by default, suggesting that real name policies are here to stay at least in the near future.
Chirgwin, Richard. 2011. “Google+ bans real name under ‘Real Names’ policy.” The Register. Retrieved August 20, 2011 (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/08/18/google_plus_bans_real_name/).
Fay, Joe. 2011. “Facebook’s position on real names not negotiable for dissidents.” The Register. Retrieved February 8, 2011 (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/02/08/facebook_real_names/).
Kerr, Ian, Valerie M Steeves, and Carole Lucock. 2009. Lessons from the identity trail : anonymity, privacy, and identity in a networked society. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.
Lam, Oiwan. 2012. “South Korea: Internet ‘Real Name’ Law Violates the Constitution.” Global Voices Advocacy. Retrieved May 19, 2013 (http://advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2012/08/28/south-korea-internet-r...).
Sung-jin, Yang. 2011. “35m Cyworld, Nate users’ information hacked.” The Korea Herald. Retrieved December 17, 2011 (http://www.koreaherald.com/national/Detail.jsp?newsMLId=20110728000881).
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OSF Information Program
The Open Society Foundations' Information Program works to increase access to knowledge, empower civil society groups and protect civil liberties in the digital environment. Find out more about the Program.