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On Digital Citizenship

NOTE:  this post is in response to a public request from the Obama Foundation for ideas, thoughts, and more on the subject of digital citizenship, "what it means to be a good citizen online," how to foster a better online environment, etc.


If the internet and its future derivatives are to continue to play ever-larger roles in the lives of modern humanity, enhance the human experience, and enrich (in all senses) the experiences of all involved, then some things clearly need to change.  The inherently open nature of the internet, with its built-in preference for semi-anonymity, have created a world where so-called fake news influenced the 2016 American Presidential election and daily influences the thoughts of millions, cyberbullying has become a serious concern for certain age groups and demographic sectors, and social media has developed into a vehicle for personal attack, the distribution of propaganda, groupthink, and worse.  Any simple assessment of the state of the citizen-facing digital world indicates disorder and chaos that threatens to undo all the good this platform serves, to say nothing of the increasing threat of actual cyberwarfare.

If unnecessary anonymity leads to the undertaking of abuse and the worst behaviors found online, then the problems of anonymity must then be solved.

 

Anonymity

By 2017, the value of unnecessary anonymity can be seen in the clear results strewn about Twitter, the comments sections of any newspaper/blog article or YouTube video, and various online communities.  Very little of the content produced by these anonymous persons requires anonymity and a notably distinct portion is clearly abusive in one fashion or another.  By comparison, however, the interactions of individuals on platforms more tangibly tied to their real identity -- such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or a variety of online communities organized around a profession -- are much more civil.

For decades, anonymity has been a central tenet of digital culture despite a noteworthy lack of any factual justification for this inherent centrality.  Perhaps now is the time to begin to question this longstanding premise.

Since it is exceedingly rare for persons who deeply intertwine their public, private, and professional identities -- such as academics -- to behave in wildly different behind a keyboard than in front of an audience, this may be an important aspect to pursue.  By connecting the online activities of an individual with their actual identity -- even if only partially -- it seems a reasonable expectation that their behaviors would then typically conform to basic societal norms, as in offline environments.  When reputation matters, behavior can be expected to improve, especially when that reputation is recorded, tracked, and easily cross-referenced.

This is not to say that online anonymity should be completely forsaken, as there will always be a time and a place for important, difficult, or fragile interactions that should not be immediately or easily tied to an individual's identity.  Anonymity provided in the context of social media platforms or certain online communities, however, does not seem to produce enough of these interactions to justify the serious dedication to anonymity.  In fact, when discussing the issues of cyberbullying -- either direct or through organized attacks -- this anonymity within such communities is a well-known facilitator.

Put simply, the worst impulses of humanity should no longer be provided an identity-free delivery vehicle.

 

Solving the Problems of Anonymity via the Private Sector

One option for solving the problem of anonymity can be easily implemented within the private sector with only one minor change to social media and online communities:  private identity verification.

In this solution, each user of a social media service or online community would be required to verify their actual identity -- privately, quietly, and securely -- behind-the-scenes with the service provider or host, by simply providing a scan or photograph of a legally valid, government-issued identification document.  Nothing else would have to change:  usernames, links, and activities would all remain the same as the individual prefers.  However, each user would innately understand that their activities could be easily linked to their actual identity, if necessary.

By requiring each user to identify themselves with each provider or host, the users would likely feel a certain amount of pressure to behave more in accordance with standard societal norms.  In the event that illegal activity were to take place, the issuance of a warrant to the provider or host would then quickly produce the actual identity of the user and make them subject to any applicable legal frameworks.  When engaging in activities that truly require anonymity, the user would have the option to flag it as such, internally with the provider or host, thereby permitting a different and more protected response -- subject to a review of legitimacy -- to the receipt of a warrant.

 

Solving the Problems of Anonymity via Digital Citizenship

Another option for solving the problem of anonymity could be implemented, with some initially difficult preparations, at the level of government:  digital citizenship.

It seems likely that governments may soon be offering a digital form of citizenship to coexist and intertwine with traditional citizenship -- something Estonia seems to have already recognized -- and this digital citizenship can provide an answer to relevant socio-cultural problems.  If countries were to issue digital identification and authentication processes, alongside an enhanced passport and other standard services, this digital identity could be employed within many contexts other than government.  Moreover, by linking online identity and real identity -- as already discussed -- a behavioral change is likely.

Such a process -- also previously, and briefly, discussed --  would issue a unique email account (such as "brady.kyle.robert@citizen.usa.gov") that could be used as internet-wide identity authentication, similar to the present ability to login to services with a Google, Facebook, or Twitter account.  There would be no need to provide any identity information -- such as name, birthday, address, or government identification numbers -- because a service provider or host could simply query the government system for permission to access this information.  More important, however, is the existence of a truly authenticated identity that doesn't require the provision of private information or government identity documents to private sector entities.

In cases where anonymity would be necessary, the same protocol could be employed:  an internal flag for anonymity placed on a specific activity, with specific and reasons reasons identified, and in accordance with certain protocols.  Again, this anonymity flag would be subject to a review of legitimacy by the provider or host, in order to ensure no illegal or abusive behavior is occurring anonymously.  No government would have access to user data without a proper warrant, since all activity data would still be stored by providers and hosts, so the existence of a government-authenticated identity does not affect or jeopardize the use of legitimate anonymity.

 

Conclusion

There are many problems to be solved, quickly, if the digital world is to remain valuable and free.  However, by addressing an underlying and fundamental problem -- anonymity -- that often permits and perpetuates improper, disruptive, or illegal behavior, the digital world would be one substantial step closer to safe, secure, and socially normalized.  The solutions outlined in this post are not going to be easily accepted by all and they would have some difficulty in their implementation, but this does not degrade their importance.

If the issue of needless and abusive anonymity is not soon solved, more draconian and invasive frameworks may be implemented by governments around the world.  It is, therefore, in the best interest of all involved to collaboratively discover and implement a suitable solution before this occurs.  And such a solution, while difficult, will only enhance the experience and utility of the digital world. 

Kyle R. Brady