Perception of Online Anonymity May Be Fading

Aug 4, 2011 6:00 AM PST

LOS ANGELES — Consumers’ perception of online anonymity may be coming to a rapid end, if a number of recent “anti-privacy” initiatives are able to take hold.

A subject of great concern for operators of adult websites whose customers may only visit under the belief that their journey is untraceable, online anonymity is under attack by both government and online industry forces — forming some occasionally surprising alliances, while underscoring a variety of shared, common interests.

For example, the Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, a strikingly misleading piece of legislation, would require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to maintain comprehensive identity, billing and network access information on customers — holding this data for a minimum of 18 months, as a means of furthering investigations.

This is raising alarms among consumers and advocacy groups who fear both security breaches and corporate greed leading to prolonged data mining of this sensitive info.

“Personally, I’m insulted as a porn-loving American girl to be included by way of consumer participation in this disgusting and misleading characterization [and] that my privacy has just been sold for something that doesn’t actually help the children,” writer Violet Blue blogged for “I don’t feel confident that treating us all like the criminals our system can’t catch is going to protect any children, especially when the people who passed the bill can’t — or won’t — distinguish the difference between legal adult pornography and pedophilia.”

“The bill is mislabeled,” Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), stated. “This is not protecting children from Internet pornography. It’s creating a database for everybody in this country for a lot of other purposes.”

Those “other purposes” could include civil and private investigations, such as divorce proceedings or other complaints unrelated to child abuse or “Internet pornographers.”

The Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection (ASACP) recently penned a letter to Congressional leaders, protesting the naming of the bill and providing evidence that conclusively demonstrates that there is no link between the legitimate online adult entertainment industry and traders in depictions of child sexual abuse.

The foes of freedom balk at these assertions, however, such as Morality in Media CEO Patrick Trueman, who countered that “Nothing could be further from the truth,” calling ASACP “a pornography front group,” which is asking Congress “to continue protecting illegal pornography.”

This erroneous drumbeat is echoing in intensity as we approach our election cycle, fueling calls “to do something about pornography on the Internet” — the cornerstone of which is privacy and the protection of Americans’ 1st and 4th Amendment rights.

Interestingly, online powerhouses such as Facebook and Google are also jumping on the anti-privacy bandwagon.

In the case of the latter, Google’s desire for user transparency seems to be tied to the company’s anti-spam initiatives associated with its new “+1” social searching function, as evidenced by its “real names” program. While at a recent speaking engagement, Facebook Marketing Director, Randi Zuckerberg is quoted as saying “I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away.”

“People behave a lot better when they have their real names down,” Zuckerberg said. “I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Although this notion has been proven correct on any number of industry message boards and other online forums, the self-serving nature of these corporate stances are profoundly reshaping Internet culture by bringing accountability into the mix; but this so-called “civility argument” — like conflating images of child abuse with lawful Internet pornography — is yet another disguise for the enemies of privacy to wear.

“The problem with the civility argument is that it doesn’t tell the whole story,” wrote Eva Galperin for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “Not only is uncivil discourse alive and well in venues with real name policies (such as Facebook), the argument willfully ignores the many voices that are silenced in the name of shutting up trolls: activists living under authoritarian regimes, whistleblowers, victims of violence, abuse, and harassment, and anyone with an unpopular or dissenting point of view that can legitimately expect to be imprisoned, beat-up, or harassed for speaking out.”

Given the current political climate, this could easily include consumers of legitimate adult entertainment — caught up in witch hunts, in the name of “protecting the children,” or combating fraud, identity theft, personality obfuscation and piracy.

Regardless of the details and how this all plays out, one thing is for certain: the loss of anonymity on the Internet, or even its perceived loss, will induce a chilling effect on the consumers and providers of online adult entertainment, making the ongoing protection of customer privacy an issue for adult operators — and not the sole province of the FTC.

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