The Idaho Statesman, my sort-of-local newspaper, just announced that it will follow the lead of the Miami Herald and no longer allow readers to post anonymous comments to online stories. Starting September 15, readers who want to make comments will have to login through Facebook. This is the second time I’ve encountered a mandatory Facebook login for users trying to gain access to a third-party service. The first time was when I tried to sign up last year for the music streaming service Spotify. (Spotify now allows users to create an account using an email address, but it didn’t always.) I’m not a Facebook fan for reasons related to Facebook’s privacy and information practices, but that’s really neither here nor there. The question is whether I should have to be a Facebook user to access services on the Internet that have no natural or necessary connection to Facebook. I’m not talking here about giving users the option to login through Facebook if they want to share their online activities with Facebook friends. I’m talking about conditioning access to a non-Facebook service, or to some aspect of that service, on a user’s having a Facebook account. Internet users are accustomed to dealing with lots of intermediaries, from broadband providers to search engines, to get access to services and information. The Internet is all about mediated transfers of information. I get that. But this strikes me as a troubling new layer of intermediation.
The Statesman’s motivation for the change in policy is to stop abusive, trolling behavior in comments. The idea, I suppose, is that people will be less inclined to say stupid things if they have to “own” their speech through some process of authentication. Or maybe they will be less inclined to speak at all if they have to go through an extra step to do it. Putting aside (very big and important) questions about the need to protect anonymous speech—both online and offline—in a democratic society, it seems to me that using Facebook as a means of authentication is flawed at best. Anyone can create a pseudonymous Facebook account.
And then there’s the question of user choice. Why make Facebook the exclusive intermediary platform? What about other social media platforms like Linked In and Twitter? Do they provide less reliable authentication? Or are they just not as hegemonic? Does Facebook offer financial or other incentives to online providers to choose Facebook as the gateway to their services?
Does anybody view this practice as a positive development for users? If so, I’m genuinely interested in hearing why. (By the way, you will not be required to login through Facebook to comment on this post.)