Is It Time to End Anonymity in E-Commerce? (No.)

The Bloomberg editorial staff has a message to the average online consumer that likes to review a company, book, or product with anonymity: grow up. The Internet is a mature place for business, and it’s time to stop hiding behind pseudonyms and usernames. Real names, please.

Bloomberg’s editorial staff opinion comes after the news of Amazon’s massive lawsuit against over a thousand users who profited from the shadow economy of fake reviews on their e-commerce site. This is no minor annoyance. These fake reviews have the power to boost the appeal of a shoddy product to increase online conversions. A nasty fake review campaign can nosedive a book’s release and crush an author’s credibility. Fake reviews are a real problem in e-commerce, and Bloomberg’s solution is a hatchet where a scalpel would suffice.

The thesis of the editorial is worth quoting in full:

Can Amazon succeed in weeding out all fake reviews? In a word: No. But it has rightly judged them to be a threat to the trust on which much e-commerce depends. Whether the legal system offers the best way to maintain that trust remains an open question.
At any rate, the case for cracking down on fake reviewers highlights a distinction with a difference in the digital age: Privacy and anonymity are not the same, and they do not deserve equal treatment. The former is a right that consumers should expect and companies should honor. The latter, with some notable exceptions, too often masks activities that don’t deserve protection and which distort competition.

Eliminating anonymity in e-commerce would punish the average consumer in the pursuit of reducing fraud. Notice Bloomberg acknowledges that this wouldn’t eliminate fraud completely, only help improve “adult supervision” of commerce online. I’d be better convinced if I thought Amazon was truly at risk.

To be clear, Yelp is a site to which fake reviews threaten the trust on which e-commerce depends. Amazon is not nearly as vulnerable as Bloomberg would suggest. Amazon is a massive, nearly immutable e-commerce site that is successful despite the fraudulent reviews. The primary solution to this problem has already been enacted by osmosis — Internet consumers are generally skeptical of online reviews. With this skepticism, the vast majority of purchase decisions made on the site are made with the belief that, in general, the reviews should be read and accepted with a grain of salt.

In addition, Amazon has controls in place to inhibit bad actors from spamming review sections on the site with phony reviews. Registration for an Amazon account, with a distinct pseudonymous username, is one barrier. Another is the vast data collection and processing already taking place at Amazon. Pseudonymous identifiers like IP addresses, cookies, and advertising IDs are highly effective controls at spotting fraudulent accounts. Combining these controls with the threat of a massive lawsuit, it’s clear Amazon has all the muscle they need to diminish fake reviews and fraud as best they can. Eliminating anonymity for its loyal consumers would be a massive and unnecessary overreaction.

Online anonymity is, and will continue to be, a hotly debated issue. The opinion put forth by Bloomberg is hardly new. Bloomberg joins the conversation long after news sites, blogs, and social media began debating the value of anonymity in an online world. Is anonymity worth it anymore? It’s a delicate balance, to be sure — to protect free and open speech while defending against hate speech, spamming, and other malicious behavior. Facebook’s response has been to ardently defend its real name policy, where users with pseudonyms are locked out of their accounts until they either prove their name matches their profile or change it accordingly. Paul Budnitz wrote a fantastic rundown of the policy (and its deleterious effect) here on Medium.

Of course e-commerce would be more effective with a real-names policy. Transactions would be smoother, spam would be diminished, and identity theft would be far more challenging. The debate stalls when we begin to envision what unseen good an anonymous ecosystem does for our e-commerce. Like many issues in privacy — anonymity is a highly personal concept to each individual. The value of having anonymity may not be fully appreciated until it’s no longer available.

For me, I know that I behave differently when I’m being watched. Science supports that we all act a little better, a little more calculated, under surveillance. We stop being individuals — and we start being the kinds of people we want other people to see us as. This may be great for high schools, great for e-commerce, but it’s not great for free expression. There’s inherent value in being able to voice your opinion on products, companies, and services without attribution online. While anonymity leaves the door open to the possibility of fraud, it also opens the door to dissent, to deviation from the norm. Protecting an individual’s privacy means also protecting their right to be different and voice opinions that may not be widely acceptable.

Bloomberg is right to say that privacy and anonymity aren’t synonyms. They are, however, complementary. Anonmymity is tool to promote and protect an individual’s sense of privacy and self-worth. It gives voices to dissenters. While it may confuse some ad attribution techniques by big data players, it’s still a valuable norm that deserves protection, even in an age of e-commerce.