Is privacy going the way of the dodo?

Say it ain't so!

Well, it’s official. Anonymity is on its way out on the internet. Recently, Blizzard Entertainment announced the RealID system for the World of Warcraft MMORPG. The stated idea of the system as to provide a social aspect to the game. If that was what they intended, they failed miserably. What they have created, is a firestorm of protests as well as a drop in subscriptions. Of course, since they had about 20 million subscriptions, they likely didn’t CARE if they lost a few hundred thousand to poorly implemented ideas. Though given their backdown, maybe they did care a little.

On the surface, RealID is not a bad idea. The concept is fairly simple. Take a new WOW player. In order to subscribe, that player must create a account. This allows them access to the game. They also are allowed access to the game forums. Now I don’t know about you, but I avoided the WOW forums after the second day I played the game. It was flame, troll or die, all day, every day. Any time someone asked a serious question, they got hit with so much spam it wasn’t funny at all. But to create their account, they have to give their real first and last names, the same ones they used to pay for the game. So… Unless you have a very good fake ID with credit attached… You have to use your real information. Hence the title, RealID. And these names will show up in game. (If the player chooses – it’s optional in-game – Ed.)

Now the internet is not a nice place, we all know that. We may not like it, but there isn’t a lot we can do about it. Some people seem to think that as long as no one knows who they really are, they can act as they wish, be as insulting, rude, crude or socially unacceptable as they wish with no repercussions. They can use racial slurs, sexual innuendos, or any other things they wish with no fear of repercussion. They can threaten, they can intimidate, they can do anything they want, because they are anonymous. And hey, it’s not real, right? Who cares if some people take it seriously, they are just nuts, right?

Not really. The entire concept of privacy on the internet is laughable to say the least. Any information that anyone has ever transmitted online is out there, somewhere. The whole idea of stalking has been taken to a new low by the internet. With so much information available online, it is easier than ever for perverts and creeps to get hold of what they want. Where once they had to go through people’s trash to find out the addresses for their targets, now they surf Facebook and other such social sites. That is one reason that I don’t use Facebook. So, now Blizzard had decided to implement such a ‘service’ themselves.

Ok, how about an example? A divorced woman with two abused kids is in a new home far from her ex husband who liked to hurt all three of them when he got drunk. She has been hiding from him since she escaped. She likes to play WOW and she plays as a new character with friends that her husband knows. Suddenly, her information changes in game, and her real name pops up over her character. And guess who is there, sending her a nice, private message? ‘See you soon’. What can the cops do to keep the ex from harassing her in a game? Nothing. What can Blizzard do? Why should they care? It’s not their problem, it’s hers.

Harassment is nothing new. It has been around since humans started coming down from the trees and likely will for as long as the species is in existence. Many humans seem to have a deep rooted need to dominate others. Of course in real life, there are laws against such things now, for good reasons. Harassment can lead to worse crimes. It is degrading, humiliating and just plain wrong. And no, it doesn’t just happen to women, or gays, or people who are not of mainstream religions. It happens every single day, to many different people. And on the internet it happens every minute, every second probably. Because there is no accountability.

Blizzard was attempting to instill some of that accountability into its game. They have backed off of it now, probably due in no small part to the overwhelmingly negative response that they got from their customers after the announcement. RealID is still in the game, but now, it is optional, as opposed to mandatory. Of course all a player has to do is download a utility called GameStore to access it anytime. But that may be a bug. We HOPE it’s a bug…

It was and is an interesting idea. But the concept of allowing other people, strangers, to view so called ‘private’ information cuts deep into the heart of many gamers. We want to feel we are safe, even if it is an illusion. We want to have fun in games, not worry about our identities being stolen or worry about being harassed or stalked in real life. We want the illusion of privacy that we cling to online to be secure.

In closing, I will say this. The internet is still very much a Wild West type of environment at the moment. People can say anything and do anything. The worst that can happen is that they are banned from a forum. So they make new account and come back worse than ever because now they are mad. But this is liable to change. New laws are making their way laboriously through the process of being approved by state and federal authorities that will tighten the strictures that are so lax on the internet. Just as law and order eventually tamed the Wild West, laws will eventually tame much of the internet. While there likely will be trolls, flamers and fools with causes as long as there are humans, with less freedom to inflict their cruelty on others, they will become a nuisance as opposed to a normal thing. And it cannot be soon enough for me.

Over to you: if an online game required you to show your real name, would you play it?