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An Offline Foundation for Online Accountable Pseudonyms

Bryan Ford and Jacob Strauss
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

First Workshop on Social Network Systems
April 1, 2008


Online anonymity often appears to undermine accountability, offering little incentive for civil behavior, but accountability failures usually result not from anonymity itself but from the disposability of virtual identities. A user banned for misbehavior—e.g., spamming from a free E-mail account or stuffing an online ballot box—can simply open other accounts or connect from other IP addresses. Instead of curtailing freedom of expression by giving up anonymity, online services and communities should support accountable pseudonyms: virtual personas that can provide both anonymity and accountability. We propose Pseudonym parties, a scheme for creating accountable pseudonyms, which combine inperson social occasions (parties) with technical infrastructure (a pseudonymous sign-on service) to enforce the rule that one real person gets one virtual persona on any participating online service. Pseudonym parties enable the user to adopt different personas in different online spaces without revealing the connection between them, while ensuring that each user has only one accountable pseudonym in each space. Pseudonym parties can be started incrementally in a fully decentralized fashion, can run on volunteer labor with minimal funds, and may even be fun.

Final paper: PDF PS

Early drafts: 2006 2007

Followup: Proof-of-Personhood, Identity and Personhood in Digital Democracy

Topics: Security Privacy Anonymity Identity Personhood Democracy Bryan Ford