A Defense of Modest Real Name Requirements

Lunchtime speech at the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 13th Annual Symposium: Altered Identities, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 13, 2008.

I. Introduction

Let me say up front, for the benefit of privacy advocates, that I agree entirely that it is possible to have an interesting discussion and productive collaborative effort among anonymous contributors, and I support the right to anonymity online, as a general rule. But, as I’m going to argue, such a right need not entail a right to be anonymous in every community online. After all, surely people also have the right to participate in communities in which real-world identities are required of all participants—that is, they have a right to join voluntary organizations in which everyone knows who everyone else really is. There are actually quite a few such communities online, although they tend to be academic communities.

Before I introduce my thesis, I want to distinguish two claims regarding anonymity: first, there is the claim that personal information should be available to the administrators of a website, but not necessarily publicly; and second, there’s the claim that real names should appear publicly on one’s contributions. I will be arguing for the latter claim, that real names should appear publicly.

But actually, I would like to put my thesis not in terms of how real names should appear, but instead in terms of what online communities are justified in requiring. Specifically in online knowledge communities—that is, Internet groups that are working to create publicly-accessible compendia of knowledge—organizers are justified in requiring that contributors use their own names, not pseudonyms. I maintain that if you want to log in and contribute to the world’s knowledge as part of an open, community project, it’s very reasonable to require that you use your real name. I don’t want, right now, to make the more dramatic claim that we should require real names in online knowledge communities—I am saying merely that it is justified or warranted to do so.

Many Internet types would not give even this modest thesis a serious hearing. Most people who spend any time in online communities regard anonymity, or pseudonymity, as a right with very few exceptions. To these people, my love of real names makes me anathema. It is extremely unhip of me to suggest that people be required to use their real names in any online community. But since I have never been or aspired to be hip, that’s no great loss to me.

What I want to do in this talk is first to introduce the notion of an Internet knowledge community, and discuss how different types handle anonymity as a matter of policy. Then I will address some of the main arguments in favor of online anonymity. Finally, I will offer two arguments that it is justified to require real names for membership in online knowledge communities.

II. Some current practices in online knowledge communities

First, let me give you a definition for a phrase I’ll be using throughout this talke. By online knowledge community I mean any group of people that gets organized via the Internet to create together what at least purports to be reliable information, or knowledge. And I distinguish between a community that purports to create reliable information from a community that is merely engaging in conversation or mutual entertainment. So this excludes social networking sites like MySpace and FaceBook, as well as most blogs, forums, and mailing lists. Digg.com might be a borderline case; calling that link rating website a “knowledge community” is again straining the definition, because I’m not sure that many people really purport to be passing out knowledge when they vote for a Web link. They’re merely stating their opinion about what they find interesting; that’s something different from offering up knowledge, it seems to me.

I want to give you a lot of examples of online knowledge communities, because I want to make a point. The first example that comes to mind, I suppose, would be Wikipedia, but also many other online encyclopedia projects, such as the Citizendium, Scholarpedia, Conservapedia, among many others (and these are only in English, of course). Then there are many single-subject encyclopedia projects, such as, in philosophy, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; in biology, there is now the Encyclopedia of Life; in mathematics, there is MathWorld; in the Earth Sciences, there is the Encyclopedia of Earth; and these are only a few examples.

But that’s just the encyclopedia projects. There are many other kinds of online knowledge communities. Another sort would be the Peer to Patent Project, started by NYU law professor Beth Noveck. Perhaps you could consider as an online knowledge community the various pre-print, or e-print, services, most notably arXiv, which has hundreds of thousands of papers in various scientific disciplines. This might be straining the definition, however. If you consider a pre-print service an online knowledge community, then perhaps you should consider any electronic journal such a community; indeed, perhaps we should, but I won’t argue the point. Anyway, I could go on multiplying examples, but I think it would get tedious, so I’ll stop there.

The examples I’ve given so far have been mostly academic and professional communities. And here I finally come to my point: out of all the projects named, the only ones in which real names are not required, or at least not strongly encouraged, are Wikipedia and Conservapedia. This, of course, proves only that when academics and professionals get online, they tend to use their real names, which shouldn’t be surprising to anyone.

But there are actually quite a few other online knowledge communities that don’t require the use of real names. I have contributed a fair bit to one that is a very useful database of Irish traditional music—it’s got information about tunes and recordings–it’s called TheSession.org. There are many other hobbyist communities that don’t require real names; just think of all the communities about games and fan fiction. Of course, then there are all the communities to support open source software projects. I doubt a single one of those requires the use of real names.

I haven’t had time to do (or even find) a formal study of this, but I suspect that, as a general rule, academic projects either require or strongly encourage real names, while most other online knowledge communities do not. This should be no great surprise. Academics are used to publishing under their real names, but this is mostly for professional reasons; with the advent of the Internet, many other people are contributing to the world’s knowledge, in various Internet projects, but they have no professional motivation to use their own real names. For some people–for example, a lot of Wikipedians–privacy concerns far outweigh any personal benefit they might get for putting their names on their contributions.

So, how should we think about this? Is it justifiable to demand anonymity in every online community, on grounds of privacy, or any other grounds? I don’t think so.

III. Some arguments for anonymity

Next, let’s consider some arguments for anonymity as a policy, and briefly outline some replies to them. By no means, of course, do I claim to have the last word here. I know I am going very quickly over some very complex issues.

A. The argument from the right to privacy. The most important and I think most persuasive argument that anonymous or pseudonymous contribution should be permitted in online communities is that this protects our right to privacy. The use of identities different from one’s real-world identity helps protect us against the harvesting of data by governments and corporations. Especially in open Internet projects, a sufficiently sophisticated search can produce vast amounts of data about what topics people are interested in, and much other information potentially of interest to one’s employers, corporate competitors, criminals, government investigators, and marketers. This is a major and I think growing concern about Google, as well as many online communities like MySpace and FaceBook. Like many people, I share those concerns, even though personally my life is an open book online–maybe too open. Still, I think privacy is an important right.

But I want to draw a crucial distinction here. There is a difference between, on the one hand, using a search engine, or sharing messages, pictures, music, and video with one’s friends and family, and on the other hand, adding to a database that is specifically intended to be consulted by the world as a knowledge reference. The difference is very obvious if you think about it. Namely, there is simply no need to make your name or other information publicly available, for you to do all the former activities. When you are contributing to YouTube, for example, you can achieve your aims, and others can enjoy your productions, regardless of the connection or lack thereof between your online persona and your real-world identity. So, in those contexts, the connection between your persona and your identity should be strictly up to you. For example, whether you let a certain other person, or a marketer, see your FaceBook profile also should be strictly up to you. These online services have become extensions of our real lives, the details of which have been and generally should remain private, if we want them to be.

We have a clear interest in controlling information about our private lives; we have that interest, of course, because it can be so easily abused, but also because we want to maintain our own reputations without having the harsh glare of public knowledge shone on everything we do. Lack of privacy changes how we behave, and indeed we might behave more authentically, and we might have more to offer our friends and family, if we can be sure that our behavior is not on display to the entire world.

I’ve tried to explain why I support online privacy rights in most contexts. But I say that there is a large difference between social networking communities like MySpace and FaceBook, on the one hand, and online knowledge communities like Wikipedia and the Citizendium, on the other hand. When you contribute to the latter communities, the public does have a strong interest in knowing your name and identity when you contribute. This is something I will come back to in the next part of this talk, when I give some positive arguments for real names requirements.

B. The argument from the freedom of speech. But back to the arguments for anonymity. A second argument has it that not having to reveal who you are strengthens the freedom of speech. If you can speak out against the government, or your employer, or other powerful or potentially threatening entities, without fear of repercussions, that allows you to reveal the full truth in all its ugliness. This is, of course, the classic libertarian argument for anonymous speech.

The most effective reply to this is to observe that, in general, there is no reason that online collaborative communities should serve as a platform for people who want to publish without personal repercussions. There are and will be many other platforms available for that. Indeed, specific online services, such as WikiLeaks, have been set up for anonymous free speech. Long may they flourish. Moreover, part of the beauty of the classical right to freedom of speech is that it provides maximum transparency. Anyone can say anything—but then, anyone else can put the first person’s remarks in context by (correctly) characterizing that person. Maximum transparency is the best way to secure the benefits of free speech.

I suspect it is a little disingenuous to suggest that anonymous speech is generally conducive to the truth in online knowledge communities. The WikiScanner, and the various mini-scandals it unearthed, actually helps to illustrate this point. It illustrated something that was perfectly obvious to anyone familiar with the Wikipedia system: that persons with a vested interest in a topic can and do make anonymous edits to information about that topic on Wikipedia. They are not telling truth to power under the cover of anonymity. Rather, they are using the cover of anonymity to obscure the truth. They would behave differently, and would be held to much more rigorous standards, if their identities were known. I want to suggest, as I’ll elaborate later, that full transparency–including knowledge of contributor identities–is actually more truth-conducive than a policy permitting anonymity.

IV. Two reasons for real name requirements

Now I am going to shift gears, and advance two positive arguments for requiring real names in online knowledge communities. One argument is political: it is that communities are better governed if their members are identified by name. The other argument is epistemological: it is that the content created by an “identified” community will be more reliable than content created by an “anonymous” community.

A. The argument from enforcement. The first argument is one that I think you legal theorists might be able to sink your teeth into. Let me present it in a very abstract way first, and then give an example. Consider first that if you cannot identify a person who breaks a rule, it is impossible to punish that person, or enforce the rule in that case. Forgive me for getting metaphysical on you, but the sort of entity that is punished is a person. If you can’t identify a specific person to punish, you obviously can’t carry out the punishment. This is the case not just if you can’t capture the perpetrator, but also if you have captured him but you can’t prove that he really is the perpetrator. That’s all obvious. But it’s also the case that you can’t carry out the punishment if the perpetrator is clearly identifiable in one disguise, but then changes to another disguise.

So far so good, I hope. Next, consider a principle that I understand is sometimes advanced in jurisprudence, which is that there is no law, in fact, unless it is effectively enforced. A law or rule on the books that is constantly broken and never enforced is not really, in some full-blooded important sense, a law. For example, the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit might not be a full-blooded rule, since you can drive 56 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone, and never get a ticket. Obviously I am not denying that the rule is on the books; obviously it is. I am merely saying that the words on the books lack the force of law.

Now suppose, if you will, that in your community, your worst offenders can only rarely be effectively identified. You have to go to superhuman lengths to be able to identify them. In that case, you’ve got no way to enforce your rules: your hands are tied by your failure to identify your perpetrators effectively. But then, if you cannot enforce your rules, your rules lack the force of law. In a real sense, your community lacks rules.

I want to suggest that the situation I’ve just described abstractly is pretty close to the situation that Wikipedia and some other online communities are in. On Wikipedia, you don’t have to sign in to make any edits. Or, if you want to sign in, you can make up whatever sort of nonsense name you like; you don’t have to supply a working e-mail address, and you can make as many Wikipedia usernames as your twisted heart desires. Of course, no one ever asks what your real name is. In fact, Wikipedia has a rule according to which you can be punished for revealing the real identity behind a pseudonym.

This all means that there is no effective way to identify many rulebreakers. Now, there is, of course, a way to identify what IP address a rulebreaker uses, but as anyone who knows about IP addresses knows, you can’t match an IP address uniquely to a person. Sometimes, many people are using the same address; sometimes, one person is constantly bouncing around a range of addresses, and sharing that range with other people. So there is often collateral damage when you block the IP address, or a range of addresses, of a perpetrator. Besides, anyone with the slightest bit Internet sophistication can quickly find out how to get around this problem, by using an anonymizer or proxy.

That there is no effective way to identify some rulebreakers is a significant practical problem on Wikipedia, in fact. Wikipedians complain often and bitterly about anonymous, long-term, motivated trouble-makers who use what are called “sockpuppets”–that is, several accounts controlled by the same person. Indeed, this is Wikipedia’s most serious problem, from the point of view of true-believer Wikipedians.

In this way, Wikipedia lacks enforceable rules because it permits anonymity. I think it’s a serious problem that it lacks enforceable rules. Here’s one way to explain why. Suppose that we say that polities are defined by their rules. If that is the case, then Wikipedia is not a true polity. In fact, no online community can be a polity if permits anonymous participation. But why care about being a polity? For one thing, Wikipedia and other online communities, which typically permit anonymity, are sometimes characterized as a sort of democratic revolution. On my view, this is an abuse of the term “democratic.” How can something be democratic if it isn’t even a polity?

There is another, shorter argument that anonymous communities cannot be democratic. First, observe that if it is not necessary to confirm a person’s identity, the person may vote multiple times in a system in which voting takes place. Moreover, if the identities of persons engaged in community deliberation need not be known, one person may create the appearance of a groundswell of support for a view simply by posting a lot of comments using different identities. But, for voting and deliberation to be fair and democratic, each person’s vote, and voice, must count for just one. Therefore, a system that does not take cognizance of identities is inherently unfair and undemocratic. I think anonymous communities cannot be fair and democratic.

But why should we care about our online communities being fair, democratic polities? Perhaps their governance is relatively unimportant. When it comes to whether a link is placed on the front page of Digg.com, or what videos are highly rated on YouTube, does it really matter if it’s not all quite on the up-and-up?

Maybe not. I am not going to argue about that now. But matters are very different, I want to maintain, with online knowledge communities, which is the subject of this paper. Knowledge communities, I think, must be operated as fair, democratic, and mature polities, if they are open to all sorts of contributors and they purport to contain reliable information that can be used as reference material for the world. It makes a difference, I claim, if an online community purports to collect knowledge, and not just talk and share media among friends and family.

Why does it matter if a community collects knowledge? First, it’s because knowledge is important; we use information to make important decisions, so it is important that our information be reliable. If you are not convinced, consider that many people now believe that false information caused the United States to go to war in Iraq. Consider how many innocent people are in prison because of bad information. These days, two top issues for scientists are also political issues: global warming and teaching evolution in the schools. Scientists are very concerned that persons in politically-powerful positions do not have sufficient regard for well-established knowledge. Whatever you think of these specific cases, all of which are politically charged, it seems clear enough that there is no shortage of examples that demonstrate that we do, as a society, care very much that our information be reliable–that we do not merely have random unjustified beliefs, but that we know.

The trouble, of course, is that as a society–especially as a global Internet society–we do not all agree on what we know. Therefore, when we come together online from across the globe to create collections of what call knowledge, we need fair, sensible ways to settle our disputes. That means we must have rules; so we must have a mature polity that can successfully enforce rules. And, to come back to the point, that means we must identify the members of these polities; we are well justified to disallow anonymous membership.

B. The epistemological argument. Finally, I want to introduce briefly an epistemological argument for real names requirements, which is distinguishable from the argument which I just introduced, even though it had epistemological elements too. Now I want to argue that using our real identities not only makes a polity possible, it improves the reliability of the information that the community outputs.

Perhaps this is not obvious. As I said earlier, some people maintain that knowledge is improved when people are free to “speak truth to power” from a position of anonymity. But, as I said, I suspect that in online communities like Wikipedia, a position of anonymity is used specifically to obscure the truth more than reveal it. Now, in all honesty, I have to admit that this might be rather too glib. After all, most anonymous contributors to Wikipedia aren’t trying to reveal controversial truths, or cover them up; they are simply adding information, which is more or less correct. Their anonymity doesn’t shield them from wrongdoing, it merely shields their privacy. As a result, why not say that the vast quantity of information found in Wikipedia–which is very useful to a lot of people–is directly the result of Wikipedia’s policy of anonymity? In that case, anonymity actually increases our knowledge–at least the sheer quantity of our knowledge.

Can I refute that argument? I’m not sure I can, nor would I want to if it is correct. The point being made is empirical, and I don’t know what the facts are. If anonymity does in fact have that effect, hooray for anonymity. I merely want to make a few relevant points.

I think that in the next five to ten years, we will see whether huge numbers of people are also willing to come together to work under their own real names. I don’t pretend to be unbiased on this point, but I think they will be. I don’t think that anonymity is badly wanted or needed by the majority of the potential contributors to online knowledge communities in general. Having observed these communities for about fifteen years, my impression is that people get involved because they love the sense of excitement they get from being part of a growing, productive community. My guess is that anonymity is pretty much irrelevant to that excitement.

Regardless of the role of anonymity in the growth of online resources, a real names policy has a whole list of specific epistemological benefits that a policy of anonymity cannot secure. Consider a few such benefits.

First, the author of a piece of work will be more careful than if she puts her real name on it: her real-world reputation is on the line. And I suppose being more careful will lead to more reliable information. This is quickly stated, and very plausible, but it is a very important benefit.

Second, a community all of whose members use their real names will, as a whole, have a better reputation than one that is dominated by pseudonymous people. We naturally trust those who are willing to tell us who they are. As a result, the community naturally has a reputation to live up to. There are no similar expectations of good quality from an anonymous community, and hence no high expectations to live up to.

Third, it is much harder for partisans, PR people, and others to use the system to cover up unpleasant facts, or to present a one-sided view of a complex situation. When real names are used, the community can require the subjects of biographies and the principals of organizations to act as informants. The Citizendium does this. Wikipedia can’t, because this would require that people identify themselves.

V. Conclusion

I’m going to wrap up now. I’ve covered a lot of ground and I went over some things rather fast, so here is a summary.

I began by defining “online knowledge community,” and showing with a number of examples that online academic communities tend to use (or strongly emphasize the use of) real names. Other sorts of online communities generally permit or encourage anonymity, because there is no career benefit to being identified, while there is a definite interest in privacy. I considered two main arguments (though I know there are others) for permitting anonymity as a matter of policy. One argument starts from the premise that we have an interest in keeping our personal lives private; I admit that premise, but I say that, when it comes to knowledge communities in particular, society has an overriding interest in knowing your identity. Another argument is a version of the classical libertarian argument for anonymous speech. I grant that society needs venues in which anonymous speech can take place; I simply deny that all online knowledge communities need play that role. Besides, anonymity is probably used more as a way to burnish public images than it is to “speak truth to power.”

In the second half of the paper, I considered two main arguments (though again, there are others) for requiring real names as matter of policy in online knowledge communities. In the first, I argued that rules cannot be effectively enforced when rule-breakers cannot be identified. This is a problem, because we would like online knowledge communities to be fair and democratic polities; but when community members cannot be uniquely identified, this violates the principle of one person, one voice, one vote. Then I argued that the requirement of real names actually increases the reliability of a community’s output. Since we want the output of knowledge communities, in particular, to be maximally reliable, we are well justified in requiring real names in such communities.


A compromise position that I favor would involve requiring real users’ names to be visible to other contributors; allowing them to mask their real names to non-contributors; and legally forbidding the use of our database to mine personal information. This compromise does not settle the theoretical issue discussed in the arguments that follow, of course.

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 163 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

2 Responses to "A Defense of Modest Real Name Requirements"
  1. Reply Larry Sanger Blog » Should Science Communication Be Collaborative? December 9, 2010 13:13 pm

    […] Without having given clearer answers to these fundamental questions, I can’t say I have adequately discussed whether science communication should be collaborative.  Clearly, this is a big question, with many ramifications.  But I do hope I have at least introduced a few of the salient issues and given you something interesting to think and talk about. “A Defense of Modest Real Names Requirements,” delivered at the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 13th Annual Symposium: Altered Identities, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 13, 2008.  Available at http://larrysanger.org/2008/03/a-defense-of-modest-real-name-requirements/ […]

  2. Reply Tonepoet August 13, 2011 19:39 pm

    My theory was that it was the Wikipedia’s goal to get as much information from as many people as possible as quickly as possible, then using massive manpower sort out inaccuracies after the fact. More importantly I never thought the Wikipedia’s guidelines were ever meant to be enforced as firmly as law is. Hence the “ignore all rules” policy. This allows the Wikipedia to garner and fix data with unrivaled expediency, which is its biggest strength.

    I’d like to add personal reputation, identity theft, embarrassment and victimization to your list of reasons of why privacy is considered important. Even if just the administration team knows for reasonable purposes, you have to be trusting that they’ll keep your data confidential. I think that’s a little much to be asking for considering everybody’s a volunteer.

    This is especially so since the way most wikis work isn’t very conducive to being a reliable means of citation whether people give out their names or not. I have no reason to trust a random volunteer I never met before whether they give me their name or not. The consequences aren’t really grave enough. The best consequence would be to lower the proportion of vandals to legitimate contributors but if we lose some of both due to the new policy, that won’t change at all.

    Even where editors have benevolent intents, if the article is prone to saying one thing one day and something else the next the point of citation is lost. I’m not going to be able to show people I have good reason behind the statements I originally derived from the earlier version; nor can they themselves verify that it came from somewhere reliable; nor can we compare the original statements in an attempt to clarify any contradictions; nor spot differences between the source and writer’s conclusion.

    It’s also important to note that it’s rather tricky to attribute deletion.

    “Consider first that if you cannot identify a person who breaks a rule, it is impossible to punish that person, or enforce the rule in that case. ”

    That’s true but this solution doesn’t solve the problem unless you can verify a true identity. It might work very well for a collage community website, where you’re only granted access after you’ve made yourself known as part of a business proposition and regularly come into contact with the community.

    However I don’t see a good way to do this on the open web with a volunteer site. I could just as easily enter in a plausible falsehood as opposed to the truth and the entire system is reduced to nothing more than an honor system, which is besides the point of trying to strengthen the enforcement of rules and protect ourselves from vandals. The type of people you’d want to keep out could probably care less about breaking one more rule. Internet forums use I.P. bans because it’s very trivial just to come up with new information and try again.

    The only way I do see it working is if you’re forced to use an external verification body. If we used something like paypal verification you might be able to achieve the goal. However as I said before, there are identity theft concerns, so I’d think it foolish unless I’m actually trying to engage in commerce.

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