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As Facebook turns 10, Zuckerberg changes his mind about anonymity

Don't faint, but Mark Zuckerberg had a change of heart on anonymity and will allow some Facebook standalone apps that don't require using your real identity.

Ten years ago today, Mark Zuckerberg co-founded Facebook. Facebook changed the face of the web by requiring users to give up online aliases and instead post under their own real name. Over time, Facebook was so deeply integrated into the Internet that it was compared to person's web passport; "Connect with Facebook" became a "critical part of the Internet's identity infrastructure." Facebook was so widely accepted by the masses, that not having a Facebook account is considered "suspicious." Looking up a person's Facebook account is one of the first stops any law enforcement investigator, or potential cyber stalker, makes. A decade after the social platform changed the way many people feel about online privacy, identity and anonymity, Zuckerberg has changed his viewpoint of "real identity" online.  

Back in 2010, Zuckerberg told David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, "The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity."

Now, regarding identity and anonymity, Zuckerberg told Bloomberg:

"I don't know if the balance has swung too far, but I definitely think we're at the point where we don't need to keep on only doing real identity things," he says. "If you're always under the pressure of real identity, I think that is somewhat of a burden."

Zuckerberg was discussing Facebook's plan to develop standalone apps that people can use anonymously. He said:

The new apps might be like Instagram, which doesn't require users to log in with Facebook credentials or share pictures with friends on the social network. "It's definitely, I think, a little bit more balanced now 10 years later," he says. "I think that's good."

People change; it can happen. People mature, life teaches hard lessons, and people can change their minds. But is Zuckerberg's new opinion of anonymity too little too late? After all, Facebook's real identity stance has trickled down to change the face of the web.

When extremely famous people make statements covered by big media, then even people who aren't overly geeky may throw around that quote as a legitimate argument. One of the most extreme examples comes from 2009, when Google CEO Eric Schmidt infamously stated, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." The nothing-to-hide argument is the number one excuse people give in privacy and/or surveillance discussions.

Since then, Schmidt's dangerous claim has been tweaked, changed and used to justify and vilify. For example, regarding domestic surveillance, and "advanced data mining systems to 'connect the dots' to identify suspicious patterns, the NSA says about your data: "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

By 2010, seeming to follow Facebook's lead, Schmidt claimed that anonymity is a dangerous thing, governments will demand an end to it, and that anonymity will not be a part of the future of the web.

By January 2011, President Obama put the U.S. Commerce Department in charge of a cybersecurity effort to give each American a unique Internet ID. The National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace (NSTIC) plan of developing a secure and privacy-enhancing "identity ecosystem" for the Internet was supposed to lower the risks of identity theft. Facebook quickly jumped on that, reasoning that since its identity infrastructure was already integrated into millions of websites, then Facebook wanted to issue your Internet driver's license.

Not everyone was cool with Facebook's real identity policy. In fact, during the 2011 SXSW keynote speech, 4chan founder Chris "moot" Poole said, "Mark Zuckerberg has kind of equated anonymity with a lack of authenticity, almost a cowardice, and I would say that's fully wrong. I think anonymity is authenticity, it allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way, and I think that's something that's extremely valuable."

Yet Zuckerberg's Facebook policy of requiring real legal names trickled down even more. Google jumped into the nymwars in 2011 and wanted to ban the use of pseudonyms on Google+. Then, apparently not satisfied without killing off anonymity, Zuckerberg's sister Randi announced, "Anonymity on the Internet has to go away."

Mark Zuckerberg may have had a change of heart on this idea, that maybe anonymity isn't immediately evil and doesn't automatically indicate a "lack of integrity." Although Facebook may allow a few standalone apps that don't require a person's real name, will the world as a whole come to adopt his view of being "at the point where we don't need to keep on only doing real identity things"?

It's doubtful we've seen the end of continued privacy policy changes at Facebook, in which users are automatically opted in, to their detriment. In fact, a cynical person might think that Zuck's turnabout on anonymity is a business ploy, in hopes of competing with the likes of Snapchat. Bloomberg reported, "Although Snapchat doesn’t reveal how many users it has, some reports suggest that it, not Facebook, is the social network to beat among teenagers; Snapchat already handles more photos every day than Facebook. IStrategy Labs, a social media consulting firm, recently reported that Facebook’s teenage user base has fallen 25 percent since 2011."

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