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Criminalizing False Identities: The End of Online Anonymity?

Lying about your identity on the Internet may no longer just earn you the scorn of your fellow online users – it could also be a criminal, jailable offense.

Lying about your identity on the Internet may no longer just earn you the scorn of your fellow online users – it could also be a criminal, jailable offense.

Last week, a jury arrived at a decision on the Lori Drew (the Myspace mom whose actions led to the suicide of a 13-year old girl) case. The jury found Drew guilty of three misdemeanor charges, each punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine, of accessing computers without authorization. No verdict was reached on the main charge of conspiracy — a mistrial was declared.

Marketing Vox has called the decisions a watershed ruling, stating: "In addition to casting a fresh tint on computer fraud and abuse, the ruling suggests lying about one's identity on the internet could be considered a prosecutable crime."

Andrew Grossman, a senior legal policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, called the ruling a "radical change" reports the New York Times. "What used to be small-stakes contracts become high-stakes criminal prohibitions… If this verdict stands, it means that every site on the Internet gets to define the criminal law."

MySpace's terms of service require users to be "truthful and accurate" when registering. Drew's fake profile was interpreted as unauthorized access by prosecutors - a violation of the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986.

Whether online anonymity should or should not be allowed is another question. Last month, after Fast Company received a slew of comments from trolls and users operating under false identities in response to a blog post I wrote about sexism on Digg, we posed a big idea to our community postulating that online anonymity should be banned.

Responses seemed fairly evenly divided, with some protesting that banning anonymity would be an unnecessary leash around users' freedom and others insisting that there should be no difference between identities online and offline.

Rather than an outright ban, leaving it to the websites themselves to decide may be the best compromise, as users are expected to agree to the terms of service before they use the site. Sarah Perez for ReadWriteWeb points out, as sites increasingly move towards authenticating identities, a slew of services like Facebook Connect (rolled out today), Google Friend Connect, and Yahoo's Open Strategy, are all readying themselves to verify identity.

"No matter who wins, though, it's anonymity that loses. For the sites that move to these types of authentication methods, no longer will their users be able to create disposable usernames and passwords so they can troll around harassing others and leaving juvenile comments. Instead, all participants are themselves online  - and subject to the same standards for behavior that you would expect to see if you encountered them in a real-life public situation," writes Perez.