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In Defence of Online Anonymity

Posted: 25 October, 2021 · Tweet

There is a prevalent perception, notably by those with power and celebrity status, that anonymity causes online abuse. Added to which, too many of today's societal problems are attributed to social media.

Getting rid of anonymous abuse would be wonderful if it were possible, but let's be realistic. Consider Twitter's report that 99% of the accounts suspended, when combatting online racist abuse in the Euros football tournament, were not anonymous.

Governments seem to believe that digital identification will solve societal problems. Are we witnessing another power grab, just as Big Tech has benefited from online sign-ons and data harvesting? To combat crime and protect children we have laws and measures in place. So, what is the real agenda?

An end to anonymity is usually accompanied by emotional arguments that focus only on the negatives. Most of the reports, lobbying, and reactions focus on the alleged harms of online anonymity. In this article, we present the counterargument.

Being Anonymous

First, let's define what we mean by anonymity.

To be anonymous means to be unreachable. It is achieved by severing the links between an individual and a unique identifier. You are then able to engage with the world in a way where outside observers (individuals, state, company etc.) cannot tie you to your real identity. There are many situations where anonymity is desirable and we discuss some of them here. For the anonymous one, the main benefit is the possible avoidance of the consequences of their words or their search for information.

But importantly, anonymity can give a person the freedom to express their deeper thoughts and feelings. They may suppress these in order to cope or survive in their situation, whether it is their country, community, company, family, or relationship. When power imbalances occur, this need for anonymity often manifests itself.

In social media, anonymity usually refers to a pseudonymous or partially anonymous user. An anonymous Twitter user is bound to a specific handle; however, your online subscription to Twitter, which will require an email address for registration, may reveal your identity. On top of this, if you are not using a VPN or similar, you may also be sending across the network other information, including your IP address, location, and the characteristics of your computer and software (known as "user agent").

Proponents of real online identification claim it aids the reduction of online harms. Such identification makes it easier for authorities to trace internet users that may have broken laws in their country of residence. That may be true, but in serious cases tracking down people from data other than a name, is far from difficult for authorities. Edward Snowden revealed how far some governments are willing to go.

How can banning anonymity be beneficial if authorities can, in practice, track down crime-breakers? After all, even Facebook, which has a real name policy, is not immune to online harms.

Freedom to Speak

"The Secret Barrister" is an award-winning blogger (two-time winner of Independent Blogger of the Year) whose Twitter bio includes: "Wears a black cape and fights crime. Not Batman." Does it matter who is behind this alias? Perhaps. Nevertheless, if the Secret Barrister contributes to society by pointing out the ways in which authorities are not fit for purpose, who cares? We would care if the Secret Barrister broke the law, but what is gained from unmasking a crime fighter?

For the public as well as non-specialists, whistleblowing is extremely valuable in revealing industry secrets. A field of specialism can take many years to properly understand. It often takes anonymous bloggers and whistleblowers to expose wrongs. Journalists often get their big breaks and scoops because of these people. If retribution were possible through identification, would these people share what they learned and discovered? Of course not.

A boom in printed campaign literature occurred after the advent of the printing press in the 17th century. As Jeffrey Sawyer highlighted in Printed Poison lots of output, especially pamphlets coming from the Netherlands, were without attribution. These pamphlets constituted the political press of the period, offering the only significant published source of news and commentary.

Anonymity empowered many to speak freely in the 17th-century. What might we become without it in the 21st-century?

In the age of the internet, anonymity is particularly important when it comes to the spreading of political ideas, especially those outside of the Overton window. It allows the writer freedom to ideate, question mainstream thinking, slay sacred cows, and punch upward, as is necessary and healthy in democratic society.

Vulnerable People

Online, anonymity is used by many different groups of vulnerable people. Children are among the largest beneficiaries. In a recent blog post, Paul Bernal explains this eloquently:

"We need privacy from those who have power over us – an employee needs privacy from their employer, a citizen from their government, everyone needs privacy from criminals, terrorists and so forth. For children this is especially intense, because so many kinds of people have power over children. By their nature, they’re more vulnerable – which is why we have the instinct to wish to protect them."

Online anonymity allows children to ask questions about themselves. This can be done without attracting the attention of overprotective or bigoted guardians. It can also provide an escape route from bullies and sadistic teachers. What gives older generations the right to pull up the ladder on a space that was so helpful to their own development? Their experience of anonymity afforded them safe spaces. Are they are unwilling to pass on this security to future generations?

Freedom to Seek

When looking for information about sensitive issues, privacy becomes paramount. Who should be allowed to draw inferences about your sexuality, your health, or your immigration status?

You should be free to search online, for legal content, without fear of retribution. The lack of this freedom would affect the ability of people to access much-needed information within the UK, or anywhere else in the world. A person searching for legal content should feel completely confident that their activity cannot be traced.

The medical aspect of this is extremely important to Mojeek, as it was the driving force behind deciding to publicly commit to a no-tracking policy in 2006. Mojeek was receiving sensitive, uncontroversial, and probably personal medical queries, and this was often following a referral from Google.

Many people are perfectly happy to say they don't need privacy since they have nothing to hide, but this is almost always a virtue signal during an argument, rather than a statement of fact. If your search history was revealed along with your name and address, most, if not all, of us would be frightened. That is why our logs have no way of linking search queries with any form of identification.

Who Needs Anonymity and When?

Employers, educational institutions, and would-be doxxers lurk and search online, so it is easy to imagine the level of self censorship that would occur without anonymity. People should be able to live more than one life, expressing themselves to different audiences in varying degrees, as they choose.

It is important to remember that people are uniquely complex, managing multiple relationships and friendships simultaneously. Imagine starting a new online life in a world with an aggressive and threatening ex partner. Without anonymity, what would you do? You might withdraw from online communities. You might even lie about your name.

In reality, public figures attract a considerable amount of unfair hatred online. Particularly those who come from marginalized communities or express minority opinions. As do politicians, including the Secretary of State piloting the UK Online Safety Bill. Her own experiences seem to underpin a certain determination; as she set out her position for the first time since she joined the Cabinet to head up DCMS, saying:

"Rest assured, this Bill will end anonymous abuse, because it will end abuse, full stop."

We have made the counter case here, but that does not mean we are fully against requiring identification, of some form, on other platforms. We agree in general, if not on specific points, with Richard Allan who makes the case that we are best served by a "horses for courses" approach to digital identification, in this podcast about anonymity.

Conclusions

Anonymity is not inherently bad; in fact, it is a tool. You can use a hammer on nails, even to fix a garden wall, but you can also use it for much more unsavoury things. An individual's intent determines how a tool is used. As you may have heard:

Sticks and stones may break my bones,

But words shall never hurt me.

Will thoughtful adults remember this children's rhyme, and calmly prevail over those pushing for measures that reflect their own experiences? Hurtful online abuse is sadly with us, and it has ever been thus.

Powerful people should not be surprised that they get more of it than those with less power. The murder of UK MP Jo Cox in 2016 and the murder of UK MP Sir David Amess this year should not be conflated with measures proposed in the Online Safety Bill.

Anonymity has many benefits. If you think otherwise, you are not listening and are therefore missing out on crucial insights. David Amess, a respected backbench MP for 33 years, knew well the value of listening. He distinguished himself as a representative of his constituents, and was following the healthy political practice of listening directly to those with less power and privilege. He was doing so in person; not online.

Finally, it shouldn't be forgotten that anonymity is a major tool used by front organisations such as advocacy groups, shell companies, "trade associations," and more. Anonymity also shields those with power. And especially when they want to conceal their true colours. If you want to "end anonymous abuse" where would it be most effective to start?