Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why Facebook Would Have Banned Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin

Facebook is calling for snitches to report the types of activity that were conducted by such founding fathers as John Jay, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.

Paul Bernal reports:

A story about Facebook went around twitter last night that provoked quite a reaction in privacy advocates like me: Facebook, it seems, is experimenting with getting people to ‘snitch’ on any of their friends who don’t use their real names. Take a look at this:

Facebook has had a ‘real names’ policy for a while: this is what their ‘Help Center’ says on the subject:
 People in my field have known about this for a long time – it’s been the cause of a few ‘high profile’ events such as when Salman Rushdie had his account suspended because they didn’t believe that he was who he said he was – but few people had taken it very seriously for anyone other than the famous. Everyone knows ‘fake’ names and ‘fake’ accounts – my sister’s dog has a Facebook account – so few believed that Facebook was going to bother enforcing it, except for obvious trolls and so forth. Now, however, that appears to be changing.
Initially, I wondered if this was just a fake – the screenshot could easily have been faked – but there seems now to have been confirmation. It has been covered in the TMP Idea Lab (here), where they say that Facebook has confirmed that they are doing it, and the German online magazine Heise Online (here, in German) where they report that it is a ‘limited test’. Given that this kind of a test fits in with the official strategy, it seems likely that it is indeed true.
So what’s wrong? 
There are lots of argument against the whole ‘real names’ policy to start with – it was a trigger for the ‘nymwars’. Many people can only really function online with the ability to remain pseudonymous, from bloggers like Nightjack to whistleblowers, from victims of abuse to people living in oppressive regimes. When their pseudonymity is ‘broken’, the result can be catastrophic – when Nightjack’s cover was blown, his blog ceased to exist and a valuable and entertaining source of information was lost. Mexican bloggers have suffered much worse – a number have lost their lives in the most gruesome way when the drugs cartels have been able to find them. The link between the ‘online’ and the ‘offline’ personality is one that can often need to be protected. When the ‘real names’ policy is enforced, protecting that link becomes much, much harder. 
This, of course, is Facebook, which is just one service, rather than the net as a whole – but it’s a crucial service, with close to a billion users around the world, pretty close to ubiquitous. And, just as importantly, where Facebook leads, other services can and do follow. If the ‘real names’ policy becomes accepted on Facebook, it may become the norm. For some people, that sounds like a good thing – catching paedophiles and terrorists, making sure children don’t get access to ‘inappropriate material’ and so forth – but the reality is very different. The real ‘bad guys’ will find a way around the system – as so often, it will almost certainly be the innocent that get caught up in the messes. 
What’s worse, the whole idea of snitching is highly dodgy. There’s a good reason that ‘telling tales’ is looked down on – and a good reason why it’s generally only been oppressive regimes (both real and fictional) that have encouraged people to report on their neighbours – from the worst of the Roman Emperors such as Tiberius and Caligula to the KGB, the Stasi and so forth. It’s creepy – and it helps build at atmosphere of distrust, breaking down the very things that make social networks good. The social relationships that are the heart of Facebook are meant to do ‘good’ things – not be a route by which bad things are spread. 
Taking it a step further, look at the nature of the questionnaire. You’re being asked to report on a ‘friend’. If you say ‘I don’t want to answer’ that will be recorded – that’s the whole nature of Facebook – and it’s not hard to see that there could be a list of ‘people who don’t want to answer about their friends’. Indeed, under the terms of the Snoopers Charter, it wouldn’t just be Facebook who could access this kind of information: the authorities could potentially set up a filter to gather data on people who don’t confirm the names of their friends. It could be viewed as suspicious if you don’t answer – or even suspicious if you are friends with people who don’t answer. Again, this is the nature of Facebook’s social data – and how it could be misused.
Bottom line: Facebook is acting as though there is no value in sometimes writing under a pseudonym. Tell that to Samuel Clemens. And tellfred reminds us (my bold):

What conditions compelled so many of America's founding fathers and ordinary citizens to write thousands upon thousands of pamphlets that were sold and distributed throughout the colonies. "It was in this form - as pamphlets - that much of the most important and characteristic writing of the American Revolution appeared," writes Harvard University historian Bernard Bailyn. American patriots opposed attempts to require anonymous authors to reveal their identities. They needed the freedom to express themselves without fear of retaliation from King George III of England.
Many of the essays in the Federalist Papers were published under the name "Publius". Who shared this pen name? John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. 
Hamilton is also known to have written several newspaper essays under the veil of anonymity using a variety of names taken from characters from ancient Rome. "Candidus" a name used by Baptist minister Benjamin Austin, also authored some of the Federalist Papers. Ever hear these names from your American history classes: "Silence Dogood," "the Busy-Body," "Obadiah Plainman," "Robin Good-fellow," "Richard Saunders," and of course, "Poor Richard" as in "Poor Richard's Almanack." These were pseudonyms of American patriot Benjamin Franklin. Our second President of the United States, John Adams, often used the pseudonym (just another name for anonymous) "Novanglus" and "Clarendan.
Zuckerberg is getting too cozy with the government and this anti-anonymous rule plays right into the hand of the totalitarian, snooping government that wants to know every move everyone makes.

The market is probably ready for a Facebook product that respects the privacy of individuals. Let's hope someone launches it.


  1. Facebook is a private company, so they can do what they want on their network. Yet, from a business/PR standpoint this is pure, 100% insanity. Facebook rep already was in a tailspin. Now, they want to add a Gestapo-like snitching program into the mix? User growth has been slowing and they have strong competitors like Google nipping on their heels, and they are thinking about something like this? It's sad, but Facebook looks like it is on the fast track to becoming another Myspace.

    1. Corporations are non-human persons that are created by decree of the state, it is not a "private" business.

    2. Yes and no. All the state can do is determine if the corporation is acting legally, if not the state can suspend business, that's all. The state cannot tell a corporation how to conduct business where it does not intersect with some existing law. And it is highly unlikely that a law requiring a corporation to only deal with "real names" would pass judicial scrutiny. There is no compelling reason.

      I am sure the TFH crowd will say otherwise, but it simply doesn't compare with the sort of requirements put in place by (say) OSHA or EPA or EEOC. Totally different.

  2. "Zucketberger is getting too cozy with the government." Is he, or is the government strong arming a successful business to take advantage of someone else's labor? I often wonder just how much threatening goes on behind the scenes.

  3. Tony Montanna's first sentence is absolutely correct. You do not have a "right" to use Facebook. If you do not like Facebook's rules, go elsewhere. When they try to block anonymity on the internet as a whole, then call me again.

    I also do not have a "right" for all your posts to agree with me so write what you like. ;-)

  4. I am one person who deleted my data to the extent possible and deactivated my account.
    Note that I cannot leave Facebook, they own my (and your) data as soon as it is entered. Best not to start at all.