In defence of internet anonymity

October 22, 2010
A free society not only permits certain kinds of anonymity but actually depends on them
A free society not only permits certain kinds of anonymity but actually depends on them

In cyberspace no one knows you're a dog, but no one knows you're from the FBI either. Thus our government, the US government and many others are caught in two minds. On the one hand, they are supposed to be in favour of free speech, but on the other hand, well, you know Danish cartoonists, criminals, child pornographers, terrorists, enemies of the state, dissidents, apostates etc. So should we allow anonymity or not?

Our sense of internet anonymity is largely an illusion. Everything we do online is recorded somewhere: every web site we visit, every e-mail we send, every file we download. I'm surprised that politicians, in particular, who keep going on about how terrible internet anonymity is, don't understand a little more about the dynamics of the problem. If they did, they would realise that anonymity isn't what it seems!

In general, you are not anonymous on the internet, but economically anonymous (what I will call "enonymous"), and that's not the same thing at all. If you threaten to kill the president, the state you will spend whatever is necessary to track you down. But if you call Lily Allen a hereditary celebrity and copyright hypocrite (not my own views, naturally) the government will not spend money on finding you. Of course, if Lily wants to spend her own money on hunting you down and taking a civil action for libel, then fair enough, that's the English way of limiting free speech.

So even though there's precious little online anonymity, should we allow enonymity to be the norm? There are plenty of people who think not, and they're not all English libel lawyers. After all, doesn’t common sense say that it’s wrong to let people hide behind pretend names? Doesn’t that encourage the kind of mean, offensive discourse that swamps the internet?

Yet there are many good reasons for not wanting to use your identity in online debate. I was once shocked by some hate e-mails I received when I once posted some comments in a discussion forum about interest rates ("interest is the work of the devil", "we know who you are" etc etc). Now, I still enjoy participating in online debates, but do so pseudonymously: my friends know who I am.

I am one of those old-fashioned liberals who thinks that the response to bad free speech should be more free speech, not less. Limiting online anonymity is one way governments might seek to clamp down on free speech. In China, for instance, the government wants to make all 400m Chinese internet users register their real names before making comments on the country's myriad chat-rooms and discussion forums. I agree with judge Avraham, who wrote in a ruling on a court case in Israel that  "The good of online anonymity outweighs the bad, and it must be seen as a byproduct of freedom of speech and the right to privacy."

This case concerned a journalist and, to be honest, for journalists to complain about anonymous comments, criticism and even abuse is a tiny bit worrying, since their business depends on all these.  When CNN were complaining about anonymous comment, TechDirt noted that [CNN] attacks the media for "giving anonymous bloggers credit or credibility" while quoting all kinds of anonymous sources all the time.

On balance, then, I think a free society not only permits certain kinds of anonymity but actually depends on them, because we need informed and honest public debate to function properly. This was well put in the Washington Post, when it observed that "for every noxious comment, many more are astute and stimulating. Anonymity provides necessary protection for serious commenters whose jobs or personal circumstances preclude identifying themselves. And even belligerent anonymous comments often reflect genuine passion that should be heard."

I couldn't agree more. However, as the Post goes on to note, we have to recognise that people can be pretty horrible and we need a way to deal with that. Not by banning enonymity, but by managing enonymousness (if there is such a word) in a better way. To this end, the Post is developing an online comment system in which discussions are closely moderated, with the most responsible users essentially given more space to comment than those who do not. This scheme could be toughened up by using better identity technology, but it's not a bad place to start.

To read a longer version of this article, click here