Law in the Internet Society

Who shall remain nameless?

-- By MortonBast - 06 Dec 2016

Anonymity is for…

In an era when maintaining an online presence is so ubiquitous – for professionals, students, and a non-negligible number of dogs – there is a shadow of suspicion attached to anonymity. As the overshared, personally branded presence becomes normalized, the media increasingly portrays anonymity as the province of bullies and wrongdoers. Anonymity is a mask too easily worn in service of abuse, insists the popular narrative, particularly against the vulnerable and the marginalized. This narrative, while grounded in legitimate concerns about the very real harassment that anonymous online speech can enable, ignores the reality that anonymity is an even more important protection for the bullied than it is an invitation to bully. Those who care about protecting marginalized voices are often at the forefront of efforts to unmask, but might better achieve their goals by focusing on anonymity as a safeguard.


Anonymous online comments have gotten a bad rap as fertile ground for the worst of human nature to thrive, and both media and government have tried to do their part to salt the ground. The proposed New York State bill to identify anonymous posters in 2012 was followed in quick succession by Huffington Post’s replacement of its own very popular anonymity-friendly commenting system with Facebook comments, and Popular Science’s decision to eliminate comments altogether.

Even the popular practice among young Facebook users of changing their names to funny pseudonyms while job-hunting or applying to schools – and then, naturally, changing them right back again – promotes the idea that one’s true identity should be obscured only when needed to cover up misbehavior like underage drinking. But these users maintain their identities fully intact within their social circles, no less invested in their alter egos. There has been much debate about whether pseudonymous identities can improve user behavior as well as verified ones without the corresponding risks. But because pseudonymity necessarily runs the spectrum from full personal identities merely rechristened to single-use characters with little attached, it often does not fully satisfy the expectations of anonymity or of investment in reputation. In an age when forensic accounting is used to expose popular authors, it’s reasonable to fear that pseudonyms might not be what they once were.

Another interesting twist is the use of what might be called small group identity. A writer for Saturday Night Live confessed that in light of the show’s relationship with President Trump, he was very glad that sketches were not publicly attributed to individual writers – while he was willing to take the risks of writing controversial political material for the show, he said, he did not wish to publicly assume authorship for any one joke or scene.


This culture of anti-anonymity is excellent for the data collection giants like Google and Facebook, which scatter their services with anti-anonymity imagery. Most obvious is the coveted check mark of verification to be obtained on Facebook and Twitter, which elevates to rock star status the assurance that one is exactly who one claims to be. Less obvious is the way that Google tries to make a joke out of anonymity when it deigns to offer it: the “incognito mode” on Chrome that says it doesn’t store a browser or search history is symbolized by a cute little spy; anonymous viewers of Google docs are identified by hilarious real and mythical animals. Even aside from the data they actually collect, these companies actively encourage the disparagement of anonymity as a cultural value.

Little guys

A major driver behind the popular urge to unmask anonymity is the premise that exposure of identity can be used to punch up. In his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, journalist Jon Ronson details how Twitter in particular has spawned a vigilante justice culture devoted to revealing the address, employer, and other personal details of users deemed to be abusing others, especially from a place of privilege – but also how the victims of this mob justice tend to be average people, whose lives are often ruined while the mob moves gleefully on.

Exposure of identity can even more effectively be used to punch down, because it is always easier to punch down. The Supreme Court recognized this in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995) (holding that the First Amendment did not permit Ohio to require distributors of election pamphlets to identify themselves). The Court noted that the shield of anonymity was most critical to protecting the disadvantaged – everyone from the persecuted to the merely unpopular. Id., at 342. Anonymity is an essential condition for the proliferation of vulnerable voices, and the accountability interests served by exposure can, and must, be advanced in other ways.


Anonymity as an important value for protecting marginalized voices is a difficult concept to embrace because anonymity looks, on its surface, a lot like invisibility. Women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and other groups that have had to be invisible for a long time understandably want their voices not only heard but attributed. But what the anti-anonymity culture obscures is that the ability to control one’s own visibility – remaining anonymous when needed, and identifying oneself when needed – is the more effective antidote to a history of invisibility. Exposure by mob is dangerous, forcing readers to link their whole identities to every comment is dangerous, and the association of desire for anonymity with wrongdoing is the most dangerous of all.

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r4 - 21 Feb 2017 - 03:39:14 - MortonBast
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