February 29, 2024

Mandatory use of clear names for a peaceful Internet?

In our blog, we want to report on network policy, data protection and online security. We already reported on the topic of the clear name requirement in a blog post last year. In view of the current debate in Austria, we have decided to take another closer look at the topic. Therefore, this article is intended to provide an overview of the current discussion patterns, empirical values and scientific findings.

A brief introduction on the topic

The basic question is whether internet users should be obliged to disclose their real names when using online platforms. This approach is seen by some as a measure to improve transparency and security on the internet, while others argue that it entails serious risks for data protection.

South Korea

A prominent example of the failed implementation of the clear name requirement is South Korea. The clear name requirement was introduced there in 2007. Instead of creating the desired transparency, it resulted in a decline in online user participation. Also, no long-term improvement was observed in the number of hate comments. Following an increase in hacker attacks on online platforms with the aim of accessing private user data, the South Korean government finally decided to overturn the law on the clear name requirement in 2012.

What does the science say?

Scientific findings show similar results to those in South Korea. A study conducted by the University of Zurich in 2016 found that during a so-called Shitstorm on social media, an increase in aggressive comments could even be observed on the part of non-anonymous users compared to anonymous users. Individuals who use their real names tend to propagate more hate compared to those employing a username. Additionally, individuals expressing hate are frequently easily recognizable through their social network profiles.

In Austria, the obligation to use a clear name is currently being debated again in order to combat fake reviews and hate comments. The ÖVP has proposed that users should be allowed to keep their pseudonyms. However, the respective platforms should be obliged to store private user data.

Reasons for Online Anonymity

This leads to a crucial aspect that should be taken into account in the case of the clear name requirement, namely data protection. The disclosure of real identities involves the risk of hacker attacks and misuse of personal information.

There are often legitimate reasons for hiding one's identity online. The Internet forgets nothing that has ever been published under a clear name. Data leaks could therefore lead to serious consequences, from identity theft to targeted attacks on individuals. Minorities could also be targeted with such data, for example by authoritarian regimes. While some may feel safe in their own country with the publication of information, it could be a different story on holiday. Data theft could also have serious consequences for whistleblowers, who often wish to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

As in real life

Opponents of anonymity on the Internet often argue that the same law should apply online as in real life. But this argument backfires. At demonstrations, for example, the right to anonymity applies, and the obligation to show ID in real life is also bound by clear and strict rules. In everyday life, too, you don't have to walk around with a name tag all the time, which would be tantamount to requiring a clear name on the Internet. In our eyes, the obligation to use a clear name is unsuitable for combating "hate on the internet". 

A balanced solution that promotes transparency without compromising the fundamental rights of users is therefore of great importance in our digital society. Trusted Accounts therefore relies on other methods and means to sustainably reduce the number of hate messages.

Read more:

  1. https://www.bmaw.gv.at/Presse/AktuellePressemeldungen/Klarnamenpflicht.html
  2. https://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0155923
  3. https://www.yalejournal.org/publications/real-names-and-responsible-speech-the-cases-of-south-korea-china-and-facebook
  4. https://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2011/12/30/2011123001526.html
  5. https://www.derstandard.at/story/2000095399328/klarnamen-sind-keine-loesung