Google Moves to Destroy Online Anonymity … Unintentionally Helping Authoritarian Governments

Some of the world’s leading social critics and political critics have used pen names.

As Tyler Durden of Zero Hedge points out (edited slightly for readability):

Though often maligned (typically by those frustrated by an inability to engage in ad hominem attacks), anonymous speech has a long and storied history in the United States. Used by the likes of Mark Twain (aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens) to criticize common ignorance, and perhaps most famously by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay (aka publius) to write the Federalist Papers, we think ourselves in good company in using one or another nom de plume.

Particularly in light of an emerging trend against vocalizing public dissent in the United States, we believe in the critical importance of anonymity and its role in dissident speech.

Like the Economist magazine, we also believe that keeping authorship anonymous moves the focus of discussion to the content of speech and away from the speaker – as it should be. We believe not only that you should be comfortable with anonymous speech in such an environment, but that you should be suspicious of any speech that isn’t.

But governments – especially authoritarian governments – hate anonymity.

A soon-to-be-released book by Google executive Eric Schmidt -  called “The New Digital Age” – describes the desire of authoritarian governments to destroy anonymity.  The Wall Street Journal provides an excerpt:

Some governments will consider it too risky to have thousands of anonymous, untraceable and unverified citizens — “hidden people”; they’ll want to know who is associated with each online account, and will require verification at a state level, in order to exert control over the virtual world.

Last December, China started requiring all web users to register using their real names.

But the U.S. is quickly moving in the same direction.  As Gene Howington reported last year:

Do you have a right to anonymous political free speech?

According to the Supreme Court, you do. According to the Department of Homeland Security, you don’t. They’ve hired General Dynamics to track U.S. citizens exercising this critical civil right.

The history of anonymous political free speech in America dates back to our founding. The seminal essays found in “The Federalist Papers” were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay under the nom de plume of “Publius” although this was not confirmed until a list of authorship complied by Hamilton was posthumously released to the public. As previously discussed on this blog, the right to anonymous political free speech has been addressed by the Supreme Court. Most notably in the cases of Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960) and McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995). In Talley, Justice Hugo Black writing for the majority said that, “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.” In McIntyre, Justice John Paul Stevens writing for the majority said that, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. [… ] an author’s decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.” That seems clear enough in defining that citizens do have a Constitutionally protected right to anonymous political free speech.

The full DHS policy statement regarding its activities can be viewed in the DHS Privacy Compliance Review of the NOC Media Monitoring Initiative (November 15, 2011), but rt.com’s summary spells out the basics:

“Under the National Operations Center (NOC)’s Media Monitoring Initiative that came out of DHS headquarters in November, Washington has the written permission to retain data on users of social media and online networking platforms.

Specifically, the DHS announced the NCO and its Office of Operations Coordination and Planning (OPS) can collect personal information from news anchors, journalists, reporters or anyone who may use “traditional and/or social media in real time to keep their audience situationally aware and informed.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s own definition of personal identifiable information, or PII, such data could consist of any intellect “that permits the identity of an individual to be directly or indirectly inferred, including any information which is linked or linkable to that individual.” Previously established guidelines within the administration say that data could only be collected under authorization set forth by written code, but the new provisions in the NOC’s write-up means that any reporter, whether someone along the lines of Walter Cronkite or a budding blogger, can be victimized by the agency.

Also included in the roster of those subjected to the spying are government officials, domestic or not, who make public statements, private sector employees that do the same and “persons known to have been involved in major crimes of Homeland Security interest,” which to itself opens up the possibilities even wider.

The department says that they will only scour publically-made info available while retaining data, but it doesn’t help but raise suspicion as to why the government is going out of their way to spend time, money and resources on watching over those that helped bring news to the masses.” – rt.com

This question about the right to anonymous political free speech is also asked over the background of the Electronic Privacy Information Center filing a FOIA request against the DHS to find out the details of the agency’s social network monitoring program.

***

As part of recent disclosures related to the EPIC suit, it is revealed that the DHS has hired and instructed General Dynamics to monitor political dissent and the dissenters. The range of websites listed as being monitored is quite impressive. Notably, jonathanturley.org is not on this list [Howington's essay is a guest blog on constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley's website], but equally of note is that this list is by the DHS’ own admission “representative” and not “comprehensive”.

***

Some of the more high profile and highly trafficked sites being monitored include the comments sections of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the Huffington Post, the Drudge Report, Wired, and ABC News. In addition, social networking sites Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are being monitored. For the first time, the public not only has an idea who the DHS is pursuing with their surveillance and where, but what they are looking for as well. General Dynamics contract requires them to “[identify] media reports that reflect adversely on the U.S. Government, DHS, or prevent, protect, respond government activities.” The DHS also instructed General Dynamics to generate “reports on DHS, Components, and other Federal Agencies: positive and negative reports on FEMA, CIA, CBP, ICE, etc. as well as organizations outside the DHS.” In other words, the DHS wants to know who you are if you say anything critical about the government.

Anybody thinking of the name “Goebbels” at this point is not out of line.

Indeed, valuing online privacy could even get you labeled as a potential terrorist.

Google Moving to Help Destroy Anonymity

Google’s motto is “Do No Evil“.   And Google notes in a patent application:

When users reveal their identities on the internet, it leaves them more vulnerable to stalking, identity theft and harassment.

So you might assume that Google is fighting to protect anonymity on the web.

But Schmidt’s new book reveals that Google will support the destruction of anonymity (via Wall Street Journal):

Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.

Search Engine Journal explains:

[Passages from Schmidt's book] confirm what many industry writers have been passionately clattering away about for months now.  Google+ is an identity verification network.  As the network continues to grow, content associated with a verified identity will rise to the top of Google search rankings.

(Google+ is now the world’s second most popular social network.)

In other words, Schmidt acknowledges (in the first quote above) that authoritarians want to destroy anonymity … and Google will help them do so.

We are not saying that Google likes authoritarians. (Potential ties between Google and the government are beyond the scope of this essay.)   However, Google will do business with anyone … and will cowtow to authoritarians they happen to do business with.

Google is doing this to make money.  Remember, Google gathers information across all of its platforms, and personalizes search engine results based upon what you’ve looked for in past searches.

After all, Google is primary an advertising company … not a search company. See this, this, this and this.

As the Daily Mail reported last year:

A former Google executive has lambasted his ex-employer … claiming that the search company has been turned into an ‘ad company’ obsessed with harvesting people’s private information.

James Whittaker, a current Partner Development Manager at Microsoft and ex-Engineering Director at Google, posted the 1328-word attack on Google on his Microsoft blog this week.

‘Perhaps Google is right,’ writes Whittaker, ‘Perhaps the future lies in learning as much about people’s personal lives as possible.

‘The Google I was passionate about was a technology company. The Google I left was an advertising company.’

***

The move comes in the wake of Google’s controversial new ‘privacy policy’, which allowed the search giant to ‘pool’ information from 60 separate services including Gmail, Google Search and Android phones, to create ‘personalised’ advertising.

The bottom line is that anonymity reduces Google’s ability to monetize personal information and sell it to its advertisers.  So Google is on a campaign to destroy anonymity … and unintentionally helping tyrants in the process.

As INeedHits laments:

We knew a day would come when privacy was a thing of the past, but Schmidt clearly spells out that day is sooner than we had expected.

Category: Think Tank, Web/Tech

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

3 Responses to “Governments Move to Destroy Online Anonymity”

  1. “We knew a day would come when privacy was a thing of the past, but Schmidt clearly spells out that day is sooner than we had expected.”–INeedHits

    wtf?

    www. was known as the World Wide Wiretap B4 it was, even, ‘rolled-out’..

    if you(pl.), still, need it laid out for you, at this late date..

    try a Search Query.. http://clusty.com/search?input-form=clusty-simple&v%3Asources=webplus-ns-uf&v%3Aproject=clusty-original&query=%22World+Wide+Wiretap%22

    you know, “Farmville” does have its Costs, afterall..

    and, remember, you can’t say you weren’t Warned..

    http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/eternal-vigilance-price-liberty-quotation

    …Earliest known appearance in print: 1817 (as “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty”)[1][2]

    Earliest known appearance in print, attributed to Jefferson: 1834: “Mr. Jefferson, the great apostle of human rights, has told us, that ‘the price of Liberty is eternal vigilance.’”[3]

    Other attributions: Patrick Henry, Junius

    Status: We currently have no evidence to confirm that Thomas Jefferson ever said or wrote, “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” or any of its variants.

    Comments: This quotation was well-known in the nineteenth century, and was in fact used by a number of famous figures, including Frederick Douglass, James Buchanan, and William Henry Harrison. It is most often traced back, ultimately, to John Philpot Curran’s statement, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”[4] While the form in question, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” is most often attributed to Wendell Phillips,[5] this form is in fact far older. The earliest appearance in print found so far is 1817, and it is clear that this source is quoting yet an earlier (unnamed) source. Several nineteenth-century sources claim that this was a quotation from Junius, an anonymous political writer who wrote a series of letters to the London Public Advertiser between 1769 and 1772, but we have not found this exact statement in his writings, either…

  2. Clif Brown says:

    While I understand a desire to retain privacy, I always use my real name in comments wherever I may leave them. Being able to post comments anonymously leads to irresponsibility. People when shielded with a phony name will say things they would never say if they were to be known for their comments.

    A local online paper encourages uses to post comment anonymously and the result is strange – nobody knows who is saying what or if one person may be posting many times. It becomes a hall of mirrors where anything can be said without any basis in fact because, after all, it’s easy when nobody knows the source of the comment.

    The precedent of the 18th century shielding the political views of prominent people hardly applies to anyone and everyone feeling the need to express anger, resentment and just plain rude behavior no matter how trivial the forum.

    We have the paradox of people now exposing almost everything online with social networking, while at the same time being fearful of being tied to a view expressed in a comment. We are the freest any people have ever been but at the same time our fearfulness seems to increase without end.

  3. bonzo says:

    Anonymity will do nothing to prevent the emergence of an hierarchical slave state. The United States is not Libya, where rebels armed with rifles and riding around in pickup trucks can overthrow the government. We have a democracy now, but we are at risk of losing it, for reasons Orwell outlined long ago (“You and the Atom bomb”, availble online somewhere). We don’t need private gun ownership, we don’t need anonymous posting on the internet. What we need is for people to act like responsible adults, join together in groups that have traditional norms of adult behavior (no smackdowns and other rudeness), involve themselves in the political process, push for policies that prevent growth of inequality and the emergence of elites even at a slight personal cost, etc. People need to think long-term, in other words. But this is basically hopeless. We can’t even get people to stop stuffing themselves with food, so how can we expect them to accept a lowered standard of living in the short and medium run, in order to prevent a slave state from emerging? We already have an elite, which is bad enough. They are not malicious right now, but they will become horribly malicious if ever threatened, and they WILL be threatened, inevitably at some point, when the usual natural disasters require that everyone pull their belt in. The elite will demand that all the austerity fall on the lower echelons, the lower echelons will rebel, the elite will respond by a crackdown on dissent, some hot-heads will rebel violently, the crackdown will be made more severe, and that is the end of democracy. This is how Hitler, Franco, Mussolini, Salazar, and the Fascists in Japan and south America came to power. It’s always the same. The elite feels threatened, so the impose a dictatorship.

    Anyway, sorry for filling up the blog with an anonymous rant. TL;DR for most of you anyway. You can all go back to watching American Idol.