Online anonymity – what’s the big deal?

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Online anonymity is an issue fraught with emotion. It often inspires passionate arguments from both sides and opens windows into the deeper and darker aspects of our societies. So what, exactly, is the big deal?

Firstly, it is important to clarify exactly what online anonymity is. It is very closely related to the issue of personal privacy. While the matter of personal privacy online relates to companies using so called ‘private’ data for advertising profiling purposes (to give one example), personal anonymity relates more to situations that an internet user enters into voluntarily.

Whether or not companies should be using personal data for profiling is in many ways an easier subject to deal with. The arguments from both sides are fairly clear: For those opposed, it is unacceptable for us to be profiled based on our browsing history, or our demographic information that we have submitted to some membership service, such as Facebook. There is a question of consent, and many people believe that we have not given any.

On the other side of the fence the arguments can be just as valid: No one has been duping anyone — if you want to learn about Facebook’s privacy policy, or how cookies work, then you can easily go ahead and do this. Also, profiling for advertising purposes online is no different from its equivalent practice offline – physical mailings you receive are often demographically targeted in just the same way as Facebook adverts (albeit with far less accuracy!). Proponents argue that analysing browsing history is in many ways no different from handing out flyers for your new book shop outside the doors of your competitor’s.

The arguments for online anonymity run a little bit deeper, and touch on more uncomfortable issues. The sheer ability to browse anonymously has become less and less available. The amount of websites and services opting to offer easy registration and sign-in options from companies such as OAuth and Facebook is increasing. Many sites now effectively know who you are as soon as you arrive, because they are on Facebook’s social graph, and have elements such as ‘Like’ buttons onsite.

Another example is that many content sites now offer the option to comment on content “from” one of your online profiles – if you are logged into Twitter at the time, and the content site you are on asks if you want to post your comment as @yourtwittername, then that can be perceived as a definite lack of anonymity.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt have both made it clear how they feel: Why would you want to be anonymous online if you are not planning on doing anything wrong? If not ‘wrong’, then at least something you are not proud of. In their minds (and more importantly perhaps, in the minds of their shareholders), the value that is added to people’s online experiences by being able to recognise them, and create a more personalised experience, far outweighs anyone’s discomfort at not being anonymous enough.

Zuckerburg’s and Schmidt’s thoughts do not, however, take into consideration the undeniable fact that lots of people (perhaps all of us) want to do things at times that whilst legal, we also would not want our parents, our partners, or our Mormon aunty Betty to know about. Is this wrong? It is easy to think of dubious circumstances in which, yes, it does feel wrong, but there are certainly many where it does not.

Should a Kurdish political activist in Turkey not be able to post his opinions anonymously online, for fear of recrimination? Should a seventeen year old gay man not be able to contribute to an online community without worrying about his identity being discovered?

One of the great social benefits of the internet is the way in which it has facilitated communities and the coming together of like-minded individuals. Anonymity in social situations, both online and offline, is a double edged sword. It affords a greater degree of freedom, because it allays a fear of being judged or chastised. Unfortunately it also allows people to behave with impunity – you only have to read almost any series of YouTube comments to understand the downside of online anonymity.

There will be no stopping the rise of personal profile sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and there will be no stopping the rise in the integration of these sites with the rest of our online experiences. The potential of online anonymity has been proven by the likes of @bpglobalpr. Furthermore, if it were not for anonymity online, would we ever have been able to ask the question ‘Will the real @julius_s_malema please stand up’?

In the same way it is important to see that anonymity online is also neither good nor bad. It has huge benefits in some contexts, and it would be a terrible shame to lose these, but it clearly also enables a significant amount of hate speech, amongst other worrying online behaviours.

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