Anonymity on the Internet

Finally someone among the digital elite is talking sense on the subject of Internet anonymity. In an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, Facebook product design manager Julie Zhuo speaks frankly about the effect that anonymity has had on the level of civility online, and some of the things Facebook and other sites are doing to try to build some responsibility back in to the system. None of the horror stories she recounts, or even the more mundane instances of immature and uncivil conduct, are unfamiliar to anyone who spends time online. The possible solutions are not revolutionary (they begin with simply requiring people to identify themselves somehow). The watershed in this case is simply the opening of a discussion which does not begin by assuming that anonymity is equal to privacy.

In fact anonymity and privacy are almost completely orthogonal concepts. I think you can go so far as to say that privacy itself is rather meaningless to a truly anonymous actor. If people don’t know who you are, then do you care whether they know what you think, eat, read, or do in your bedroom? Privacy is most meaningful when it protects a known individual from others who seek to know more than they ought to. It is a cherished right that is attenuated only when society feels a compelling need. Anonymity, on the other hand, has never been a right, and up until a few years ago wasn’t even possible to achieve in any regular or consistent way without resorting to subterfuge. You don’t have a right to live anonymously in a community, work anonymously for an employer, marry anonymously, have children anonymously, vote anonymously. By definition you cannot even enjoy the basic rights of a U.S. citizen without having been born here and positively identified at birth.

What is private about a person’s life is a matter of debate, and constant reinterpretation as society evolves to deal with new challenges, but it is a long-settled fact that privacy protections do not extend to who you are. You don’t have a right to be unknown in the real world, so under what circumstances should you be allowed to be an opaque cipher in the network world? Clearly we all favor some level of anonymity online. I don’t want people linking my real name to everything I read, for example. On the other hand I accept that I need to identify myself to access an account or make a purchase. What about posting comments or pictures? Where does the line get drawn? These are tough questions, but it’s pretty clear that the time for the conversation is at hand. As a society we have long trended toward a defensive posture when facing the worst elements of human nature. We all huddle to some extent behind locked doors and long cumbersome passwords, more or less oblivious to the huge costs of the willful immorality of a few bad apples. Maybe the Internet is a place to fight back a bit, and have a say in what kind of society we really want to be.

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