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You and Your Avatar: Having Second Life Thoughts on Anonymity and Identity

posted by:Bert-Jaap Koops // 11:59 PM // May 08, 2007 // ID TRAIL MIX


My first thought was that a website called On the Identity Trail, with a research stream on Constitutional, Legal and Policy Aspects, would feature a lively debate on a right to anonymity. Yet a search on 'right to anonymity' on this website offers only one hit: a December 2003 piece announcing that lawyers in the ID Trail project will study a right to anonymity. Since then, the term as such does not recur, and the anonymity focus webpage - although covering a fascinating range of subjects - does not offer much for the reader who wants to know whether or not she has a right to anonymity.

This, of course, was only to be expected. A right to anonymity does not exist, has never existed, and will never exist. At some point, there will always be someone with a right to know your identity. In certain contexts, it is eminently possible that you remain anonymous, to your hairdresser, reader, or (sperm-donated) child, and you may even claim a certain right to this. But there is always a conflicting right to identification that may outweigh your claim to anonymity, for your hairdresser (if you leave without paying), for your reader (who feels slandered), for your child (looking for his father), and, ultimately, for the police (looking for a serial killer). If a right to anonymity were established as a generic right, it would be so relative as to become meaningless.

My second thought was that things may be different in cyberspace, that illusive but oh so attractive space where no-one knows you're a dog. Or in Second Life, where you can be a dog and where no-one knows who you really are. What is more, where you yourself may not know who you really are. Isn't Second Life - today's hyped epitome of cybercommunities and massive multi-player on-line role-playing games - a space where we can start from scratch and build a parallel universe where a right to anonymity is the most normal thing in the world? Where anonymity is available to anyone desiring some privacy, some fun, some room for weird statements that won't be held against her tomorrow?

If only life, even Second Life, were so simple. Ever since John Perry Barlow's Cyberspace Declaration of Independence and the subsequent tsunami of laws and regulations that refuted Barlow's rhetoric, centering on the one-liner "What holds off-line, also holds on-line" [1], we know that cyberspace and real space are inextricably intertwined. You and your avatar are two of a kind: they're different, but linked. You may want your avatar to be anonymous, or to have a famous avatar without anyone knowing it's really you who pushes the buttons, but how do your avatar friends, the avatar cops, the game providers, and the other players feel about that?

The evolution of virtual game spaces mirrors the evolution of the Internet: no sooner does it reach a wider audience, than it becomes commercialised, criminalised, regulated, normalised. The thrill of novelty disappears. Real life enters. In Second Life and its next-generation clones, avatars will use foul language, slander, commit vandalism, abuse children, rape dogs, offer drugs and crackz, discuss Al-Qaeda, launder money, and infringe trademarks. Politicians are shocked and will criminalise animal abuse in on-line games. Trademark holders will sue Internet and game providers to give the log-in data of infringing players. You yourself will want to know who assaulted your daughter's avatar and stole the dragon sword on which she spent half-a-year's pocket money. Registering the identity of game players will become routine practice, and at some point, there will always be someone with a right to know your identity.

This is a missed opportunity, since virtual spaces offer a unique occasion to experiment. In their second lives, people dare take risks they would never dream of taking in their first life. In particular, people can develop parts of their identity that they dare not develop in real life. How does it feel to be a boy? I never knew I had this tender streak in my character. How exciting to experiment with same-sex sex. How good it feels to tell this black guy that if he doesn't get out of the way, I'll chop up his ghettoblaster! As your avatar experiments, grows, and develops, in some way, you yourself grow and develop too.

This unique, identity-fostering potential of virtual space is at risk if anonymity is not a given in games. The risk of being recognised will prevent not a few experiments with roles and identities. Yet tragically, anonymity can not be a given in virtual space, because virtual space is never absolutely virtual. Real people live in virtual spaces, and real people can be hurt. If legal protection is taken seriously, absolute anonymity - of avatars and of players - is impossible. A virtual and strong right to anonymity is an attractive idea, but we must have second thoughts about this.

The bright side of this is that the resulting need for identity and identification in cyberspace raises a whole range of fascinating issues that beg to be researched. How do we identify the people behind the avatar, when millions of the world community are living in a single cyberworld, when multiple users share an avatar, and when the first people who can give identifying information - ISP's, game providers - are likely to be in foreign jurisdictions? Do people identify themselves with their avatar? Is someone's ipse identity (her sense of self) affected by the way her avatar is treated in virtual space, or by her being identified - by her idem identity (her sameness) - as the person behind the avatar [2]? Since most virtual games seem to decree that in case of conflicts, the law of California applies, do I want my identity to be governed by a law-maker who used to be a terminating cyborg? And while we are on the topic of cyborgs, when will avatars become semi-autonomous and remain active when you log out, thus acquiring some sort of identity of their own? When will they start talking back, asking you who you are, this guy that is playing around with them?

A right to anonymity is perhaps not such an interesting issue to research after all, not even in virtual spaces. At some point, there will always be someone with a right to know your identity. You yourself, for instance. Or your avatar.

Bert-Jaap Koops is Professor of Regulation & Technology at TILT - Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology, and Society, the Netherlands.

[1] M.H.M. Schellekens (2006), 'What Holds Off-Line, Also Holds On-Line?', in: B.J. Koops et al. (eds.), Starting Points for ICT Regulation. Deconstructing Prevalent Policy One-Liners, The Hague: TMC Asser Press, pp. 51-75.

[2] This is one of the many identity questions that will be addressed in the coming year by the EU FIDIS network.


Mr. Koops is too fast and loose with the right to anonymity. He thinks that "A right to anonymity does not exist, has never existed, and will never exist." The reason that he gives for this is that others, your hairdresser, the police, your out of wedlock child, etc. might have a right to know who you are. Because of this, he claims that "If a right to anonymity were established as a generic right, it would be so relative as to become meaningless." That others have the rights to know our identity does not show that there cannot be a right to anonymity. After all, it is widely believed that we have a right to privacy, but we can forfeit that right by breaking the law or the right can be overridden by a more important right. That this is the case doesn't show that there is no right to privacy. Similarly, for a right to anonymity. This is not to say that there is such a right or there should be such a right, but only that Mr. Koops' arguments for showing that there can't be such a right are not good ones.

Posted by: Steven Davis at May 8, 2007 11:11 AM

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