As the UK continues to struggle with their laws and the impact on free speech
via social media, its citizens are receiving mixed messages from government officials. We've got competing ideas going on here
, with one side advising citizens to give social media sites false information and the other suggesting that citizens should be encouraged to do the exact opposite.
Andy Smith, an internet security chief at the Cabinet Office, said people should only give accurate details to trusted sites such as government ones. "When you put information on the internet do not use your real name, your real date of birth," he told a Parliament and the Internet Conference in Portcullis House, Westminster. "When you are putting information on social networking sites don't put real combinations of information, because it can be used against you."
It apparently didn't occur to Smith that internet users might also be afraid of their own governments, but it would't seem to be a controversial opinion that citizens using government sites should probably be giving accurate information. His remarks were focused on what he called "trustworthy" sites versus those users were unsure of, which makes the idea rather benign. Despite social media sites and other sites, like YouTube
, encouraging the use of accurate user information, one would think that inputting a fake name or fake birthday would't have much of an impact overall. In addition to perhaps providing some low-level defense against fraudsters, as is Smith's focus, anonymity is an important component of free speech.
Not so fast, says MP and all-around hand-wringer, Helen Goodman. That false data used to keep away the fraudsters? It's that kind of thing that promotes criminal behavior.
His advice was described by Labour MP Helen Goodman as "totally outrageous". She told BBC News: "This is the kind of behaviour that, in the end, promotes crime. It is exactly what we don't want. We want more security online. It's anonymity which facilitates cyber-bullying, the abuse of children. I was genuinely shocked that a public official could say such a thing."
That is, to put it bluntly, ridiculous. There is a rather wide swath of false or inaccurate data on social media sites. People concerned about the aforementioned fraudsters. People concerned with data mining by the sites they're visiting. Parody social media accounts. None of that "promotes crime". And, while anonymity may embolden some folks that want to engage in bullying (let's do away with the "cyber" prefix please; bullying is bullying), are any us of really ready to say that the benefits of anonymous speech, whether online or elsewhere, should be undone for the sake of a "for-the-children" argument? This is, of course, not to say that I am unsympathetic to the plight of children being bullied. But that situation is not a catch-all rebuttal against free speech.
In the end, it's important to divorce policy from arguments that are essentially an appeal to emotion. I'd probably consider the absolute need
for fake data due to fraudsters a bit on the paranoid side, but an attack on anonymity that boils down to a "for the children" quote is wholly unconvincing.