The Internet has always been a refuge of anonymity. Anyone could hide behind the cloak of namelessness and express the most offensive views. Now politicians and companies — including Google and Facebook — want to change that.

The Avenue de l’Opéra in Paris is a respectable address, surrounded by banks, boutiques and cafés. The tenants listed on door plaques include a language school and an airline. But the name of the building’s most famous tenant is not listed: Google. The global corporation values privacy — its own privacy, at least.

“We take data protection seriously,” says Peter Fleischer, Google’s Global Privacy Counsel. “We don’t know our users by name,” he insists. “We just store anonymous identifiers, but no personal data.” This is an important distinction for Fleischer, who says that Google’s primary goal is to improve the accuracy of targeted advertising. According to Fleischer, the identities of the people behind the numbers are irrelevant. “We don’t even want to know the names of users,” he says.

These statements were made only three years ago, and yet they seem to be from a different era. In the past, the Internet was a sea of anonymity dotted with username islands, but now the relationship is being reversed. Anonymity is being declared the exception — and a problem.

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