With online trolls threatening people's lives and harassing them about their deceased dogs, the anonymity of the internet (or lack thereof) is becoming increasingly depressing. A Boing-Boing piece recently discussed how Twitter has begun to change and streamline their reporting and banning processes, but has stopped short of creating a comprehensive solution to permanently keep them off the service. Respected tech blog Re/code recently turned off comments, saying that the overall social network discussion of articles replaces the need for comments--however one has to wonder whether it was partly similar to Engadget's 2010 decision to shut off commenting when--and I quote--"comments [had] really got out of hand."
Twitter's reaction was relatively slow considering how long the #gamergate saga has existed. Said saga, which started threats against several female members of the games industry, could be a big contributor to an anti-trolling tech revolution. In January, Huffington Post began requiring all commenters (current and new) to connect their Facebook accounts, verified with a phone number, and have their real names attached to their comments. The outcry from commenters was fierce, showing the internet's intense desire for anonymity.
The market is open for someone to stop this sometimes verbally-violent generation of anonymous trolls. Randi Harper, a Senior DevOps Engineer at games developer KIXEYE, developed the Good Game Auto Blocker. According to Glenn Fleishman, a reporter at Boing Boing, developers are using code to build lists of trolls based on commonalities "in follower lists for a specific set of Twitter accounts." This can, as Fleishman points out, be integrated with another tool called Block Together to mass-block those who may be harassing anyone using a particular hashtag. Those troll lists can even be shared. The issue that then occurs, according to Harper and other women harassed on Twitter, is that these people are repeatedly re-registering and sending hateful statements again.
Taking it a step further, Trustev recently announced a re-appropriation of their e-commerce technology to tackle trolls called "Trustev for publishers." Their e-commerce system, which is used by both the Bank of Ireland and Radioshack's online and in-store presence (specifically for mobile device sales), uses a number of different identifiers to say if something is a real or fraudulent purchase. In the case of "publishers," they have turned this into a way to consistently ban "bad" users from social networks and comment threads. The logic here is that many reporting and banning features use the antiquated IP system to identify users--which can be masked with a simple VPN or a change of location.
The troll-tackling software examines browser IDs as well as physical device IDs, among other things. If a particular bad player decides to re-register an account, their account is tied to more than their IP. Trustev claims they can pierce both VPNs and detect access via popular anonymous browser TOR, which may significantly cut the rate anonymity can exist on a social network. They've raised over $3.8 million in funding at this point.
Funding of apps that encourage anonymity has become a big ongoing story. Anonymous messaging app YikYak raised $65m to grow its service, regardless of reported cases of harassment. Anonymous comments on Formspring became notorious after the suicide of a British teenager. It later shut down. Nevertheless, services like these continue to get funding. It could mean that protecting people from behavior like this may become a big business itself.
While some fear losing the privacy they once enjoyed on internet comment threads, it's becoming more and more common for people to accept the stipulations of publishers or social networks that want to prevent harassment. Businesses that encourage more anonymity are finding success for their products, even as people who want to stop the trolls get their own support. Although many people can empathize with the need to preserve privacy, one at least hopes that dangerous and threatening behavior isn't what's being protected.