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In Defense of Internet Anonymity

Tags Free MarketsLegal SystemInterventionism

08/11/2011Wendy McElroy

According to the great Internet-jerk theory,

normal person + anonymity + audience = total jerk

The actual theory and conclusion use far more obscene language, but the message remains intact: anonymity breeds bad behavior.

I disagree. Or, rather, I believe the benefits of online anonymity substantially outweigh its peripheral disadvantages. This disagreement could make for an interesting debate were it not for the fact that anything our society identifies as "bad" immediately becomes targeted by crusaders who cry "there oughta be a law!"

The bad behavior ascribed to anonymity is wide ranging and spans from common rudeness to the rape of children by online predators. Thus, those who oppose online anonymity often blur the line between boorish behavior and criminal acts in order in order to fortify their call for prohibition.

Motives of Governments

Governments, from the United States to Communist China, are seeking to strip individuals of online anonymity. The latest attempt by the United States is the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (H.R. 1981), which was approved in July by the House Committee on the Judiciary. The proposed bill requires Internet service providers to retain a record of their clients' online data and activities for 18 months, and to make that record available to authorities on request. The information would include names, phone numbers, credit-card and bank-account data, as well as IP addresses visited.

Halting child pornography is advanced as the bill's raison d'etre, but it opens the door to more extensive Internet monitoring. Libertarian-leaning tech guru Declan McCullagh explained,

To make it politically difficult to oppose, proponents of the data retention requirements dubbed the bill the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011, even though the mandatory logs would be accessible to police investigating any crime and perhaps attorneys litigating civil disputes in divorce, insurance fraud, and other cases as well.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) unsuccessfully floated a motion to rename the bill the "Keep Every American's Digital Data for Submission to the Federal Government Without a Warrant Act of 2011."

The benefits to government of banning online anonymity include the following:

  • The movement of assets and economic exchanges can be better monitored and taxed.

  • Compliance with law and social programs can be tracked.

  • The online organization of protests, such as those in the "Arab Spring," can be prevented or punished.

  • Dissenters can be silenced through intimidation or targeted if they speak out.

  • Hacker attacks, such as the retaliatory strike recently conducted by AntiSec against various police departments, can be quashed.

  • Information releases from government-watchdog organizations like Wikileaks can be preempted.

The Internet currently empowers individuals more than government, but this game advantage to freedom could be reversed with the elimination of anonymity.

Motives of Big E-business

Network giants like Google and Facebook also oppose online anonymity. Advertising is their major source of income, and advertisers will pay considerably more for real names that are connected with data to be used in "market research." In short, networks lose money on your privacy. Moreover, stripping anonymity would protect these corporations from lawsuits or other legal liability for their customers' bad behavior — like bullying, stalking, or the abuse of children. But other factors may also be in play. These companies may be partly motivated by a desire to reap the benefits of aligning with government.

Thus, the e-giants are waging war on anonymity. In June, when Google launched its own social network, Google+, to challenge Facebook, it required people to register under "the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you." Users with pseudonyms found their accounts blocked, allegedly to "serve" the electronic community by preventing bad acts like "fake profiles."

Meanwhile, as the tech site ZDNet reported, "Facebook's marketing director Randi Zuckerberg, who also happens to be Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's sister, wants to put an end to online anonymity. She believes that Internet users would act much more responsibly online if they were forced to use their real names at all times." (Although Facebook currently asks for real names, it is a difficult policy to police.) Zuckerberg's emphasis on identifying users undoubtedly is influenced by Facebook's active cooperation with the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention held in March.

It is proper for private organizations to set their own policies and allow customers to decide for themselves whether they want the service on those terms. If Google believes that its new application is more valuable to its consumers by requiring real names, that is an entrepreneurial decision. But something more than customer policy seems to be happening with these companies. The active cooperation with government is ominous, as are sweeping statements about "Internet users," not merely Facebook ones.

Moreover, the customer policies on self-identification seem to shift abruptly. For example, numerous posters at ZDNet have commented on receiving notices from Google+ that required them to provide scans of a photo ID or to use only the names that appear on government forms. One poster observed, "requiring ID seems to contradict the stated policy."

Defending Anonymity

An article at info tropism entitled "Preliminary Results of My Survey of Suspended Google+ Accounts" offers a list of reasons why people chose online pseudonyms. These include,

I am a high school teacher, privacy is of the utmost importance

I am gay … in a small village

I don't wish for my opinions to offend … religious people I know or am related to.

I've been stalked. I'm a rape survivor.

I could easily add a few dozen more. For example, many people enjoy shedding the weight of their daily grind to become avatars at sites like Second Life. Others are afraid of identity theft.

The preceding, personal motives for anonymity are powerful, and the political reasons are no less so. Government and government-connected businesses claim that technology raises new issues which must be addressed through new laws. Nonsense.

It is the old battle of individual freedom versus social control. The political principles surrounding privacy are the same as ever, despite changes in the means of communication. Here's one of those principles: to control the means of communication is to control political expression itself.

Consider American history. In 1785, a resolution authorized the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs to open and inspect any mail that related to the safety and interests of the United States. In essence, the Continental Congress wanted to declare some types of matter "unmailable." Among the first items to become "unmailable" were anti-Federalist letters and periodicals, which argued against ratifying the US Constitution unless it had a bill of rights. Thus, during the ratification debates, the anti-Federalists had great difficulty circulating material through the Federalist-controlled post office.

"Anonymity can be seen as a form of identity encryption that protects against government intrusion."

Prominent men, like George Washington, complained of mail tampering. James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe began to write to each other in code — that is, they encrypted their letters in order to preserve the privacy of their political discussion. Privacy was a key factor in allowing them to write to each other freely.

Anonymity can be seen as a form of identity encryption that protects against government intrusion. This was never more evident than in the recent uprisings across the Middle East, which have been called the Arab Spring. Internet communications played a pivotal role in organizing protests and allowing protesters to maintain contact. An editorial in the Turkish Hurriyet Daily News declared,

The Arab Spring … has provided us with a new perspective: for people living under authoritarian regimes … the internet is the mecca of freedoms. As events in Egypt and elsewhere have demonstrated … the internet provides the medium through which political freedoms are accessible to all for the first time in human history. For this reason, it is time to consider internet as the first freedom of the 21st century, the gateway to all other freedoms.

On a more somber note, the editorial continued,

Governments are finding innovative ways to monitor, censor, slow or, when they feel ultimately threatened, shut down the internet altogether. Hosni Mubarak's Egypt provided the most egregious example of the latter when, in desperation, it cut Egypt's link to the global internet almost completely. Reports that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has now mobilized an "electronic army" to go on offensive attacks against the mounting opposition there represent the latest iteration of the government's effort to add internet access suppression to their repression tool kit.

One of the first acts of the corrupt Arab regimes under attack was to harness the means of communication and to punish those dissenters they could identify. This was no coincidence. For Syria, Red China, or the current US Congress, the ability to identify is the ability to control.



Technology will always be put to criminal ends by some people. But to blame internet anonymity for wrongs like child pornography is akin to blaming banking privacy for the fact that some people forge checks. When a crime happens, it should be investigated after the fact with a narrow focus on the individuals accused or suspected; the investigation should not occur a priori or be aimed at controlling the general public.

Behavior that is bad but noncriminal, like Internet rudeness, should be ignored or handled in an extralegal manner. We live in an occasionally rude world, and that is neither a criminal nor a state matter.

The right to withhold your identify, like the right to remain silent, is not the sign of a thug or child predator. It is the sign of a free human being.


Contact Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy is a Canadian individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a cofounder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist magazine in 1982.