Context: As part of my foundations class at EMDM, I was asked to write a (very very) brief paper on an ethical problem in the digital media world and analyse different opinions. I did a quick cursory, toe-dip-in-water analysis on the ethics of anonymity in online networks and thought I’d share it. Remember, this is only a quick overview of the issue that deserves a much much deeper dive:
When the internet first started growing in popularity, it had started out as a place of anonymity. (This is discounting the traceability of IP addresses, but describes more the ability for users to create an online identity distinct and separate from their real life ones.) Within forums, mud groups and later on, chat rooms, one rarely gave out a real name but instead went by a handle. To give out a “real name” was a sign of extreme trust or judged as extreme stupidity and ignorance in internet safety. However, sometime during the first social network such as Friendster and MySpace, using a real life identity became acceptable eventually even a social norm.
Today, there are platforms that range from encouraging anonymity to demanding the usage of real names. Some social platforms such as 4-chan and IRC channels not only allow users to remain anonymous but the community within these platforms encourages anonymity. Some others, like Twitter, merely give the option where one does not have to use a real name, but the social norm within the community is to do so. Others, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Quora depend and enforce the use of a real life identity. While there exists a need in some cases as the tools are meant to impact real life in some way (such as LinkedIn as a real life career development tool), do platforms ethically have a right in demanding users to author content using their real life identity?
Let’s begin from the point of view of the platform owners and their associated community managers, forum moderators and other similar roles. As mentioned previously, this varies from platform to platform. For example, it is interesting to note that while both LinkedIn and Craigslist expect to facilitate real life interactions, Craigslist encourages anonymity while LinkedIn requires all sorts of real life information. And it shows in the quality of information. LinkedIn is a purely professional site, verified and self-governed for the most part while Craigslist do have more problems with false or even illegal information. It is easy to draw a conclusion then that the use of a real identity encourages more mature behaviour from the standpoint of platform owners. For the purpose of this essay, one can take “mature” behaviour as one free of hate-speech, trolling and other forms of unproductive behaviour that only intends to subtract from a conversation.
There is a further evidence of this by two Q&A services, Quora and Yahoo Answers. While the latter appears to have questions and answers ranging from appropriate to “trolling” answers, the former appears to display a higher level of maturity in general. Many company’s internal social media policies such as TELUS’ and IBM’s are linked to the employee’s name as well in order to encourage certain level of maturity in the online interactions and also as a way to hold employees accountable for their actions online. Therefore, if a certain degree of mature behaviour desired, platform owners would believe that they have the right to depend a degree of real life identity verification.
However, maturity in behaviour is only one consideration of a platform and not necessarily the most important one. While 4chan, the largest anonymous platform online, is definitely not an example of maturity, it is also a site to encourage activism due to its anonymous nature. As stated in the article “Robert Wong’s Dilemma: Activitism, Anonymity and Google+”, many political activists in various parts of the world can be arrested if their identity was revealed. However, social networks have proven already in past incidents how much they are a part of revolution and change. Wikileaks is one prime example where those with their real identities revealed then suffer prosecution (whether they have committed a true crime or otherwise). In many incidents too, anonymously posting information that organizations seeks to cover-up has led to political reform. And of course, one cannot discuss anonymity and activism without drawing on the actions of Anonymous as an example. Whether one agrees with their philosophy or not, Anonymous’ actions do support particular causes and those actions are done in hopes to enact change. Such activities cannot be conducted without the cloak of anonymity. Yet, while the activities may or may not be legal, many activists believe it is their right to author and interact on social platforms under the safety of anonymity in order to bring about the kind of social change online platforms have become known for conducting. It is the only way to guarantee free speech in its purest form.
On the other hand, this also leads naturally to the point of view of law enforcers. When groups like Anonymous’ actions cross the line to illegal activities, it is much harder for law enforcers to be able to track their identities. But this can also happen at a much more personal level as well. Anonymity also creates a greater opportunity of cybercrime, from internet predators to scams, fraud and identity theft. As behaviour is not attached to an immediate real life identity, the lack of traceability becomes an additional cover for those who commit the crime. In fact, many government organizations and some law enforcement groups are calling for an end to anonymity online. However, some others are surprisingly using anonymity in their own ways to catch those who would leverage anonymity to commit the crime in the first place. (See Internet Crime: Where Anonymity Cuts Both Ways.) As a result, I believe while most law enforcement agencies are advocating for the end of anonymity online, this is certainly not a view shared by all in this area.
While additional data to help identify individuals is important from a law enforcement point of view, there are definitely privacy concerns with regards to the information used to identify users. Privacy advocates having their own arguments against the need to identify users by their real life information. The article from Electronic Frontier Foundation, “The Right to Anonymity is a Matter of Privacy describes the various reasons why users wish to remain anonymous on online platforms. This includes the need to separate online life with professional life, to ensure freedom of expression without the risk of prosecution and to ensure “privacy from the public eye”. Similar to the arguments of activists, the need to hide and dissociate from a real life identity can be very real.
Similar to the law enforcement point of view however, is the very real problem with online bullying and other slanderous behaviours. This often happens in 4chan. Some other platforms are even built on this. From the point of view of parents and even adults concern with bullying and slander, anonymity is a conduit of that behaviour. In an article from New York Times, JuicyCampus.com is a platform precisely created to allow bullying that can result in real reputation harm. It is examples like this and resulting columns that can lead the public to ask for a ban of anonymity online.
Ultimately, there are no answers, only a personal choice on what platforms to participate in and to what capacity using one’s real life identity. However, any broader, more blanketing policy will have to take a hard look on the pros and cons of disallowing anonymity online.