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Oct 13 / Great Apes

Anonymity On The World Wide Web Is Worth Protecting

This past summer Google rolled out a new commenting policy that tried to convince Youtube users to post comments under their real names.  The ostensible goal was to clean up the Youtube comment sections, which are known for being filled with useless bile.  At the time I thought that it might be worthwhile to write a blog post explaining why I considered this policy to be a bad move.  Like a lot of things I consider writing blog posts about thought, I wrote most of the post in my head but then got distracted by video games and never got around to writing it.

Then earlier this week Adrian Chen, writing at Gawker, revealed the offline identity of a man who he described as “the biggest troll on the web“.  Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail chimed in this morning saying that “The Gawker-Reddit thing really shows that anonymity serves no useful role in online communities.”  He then went on to say that “The whole point about an online community is that it’s *public.* Anonymity fine for email, makes no sense in public.”  So I figured maybe I should finally get around to writing that blog post about why anonymity on the Internet is a good thing.

As far as Saunders’ argument goes, I’ve taken two tweets out of a sequence, so I would urge you to go through his feed and follow the whole thread to see what he was saying in more detail.  Also, he’s got a great Twitter feed so if you’re interested in politics (Canadian or otherwise) I’d definitely recommend giving him a follow.  He discusses his views on privacy/anonymity in some more detail in this piece, so you can give that a read too to get a bit more information on his perspective.  I really strongly disagree with a lot of it, especially his conflation of state/organization/personal privacy, but that’s a complicated issue for another day.

I want to be clear before going any further that my intent here is not to delve too deeply into the legal questions around these issues which are many and complex.  What I’m more interested in is arguing that whether or not it deserves legal protections, anonymity is unambiguously a good thing to preserve on the World Wide Web, at least in instances where people desire it.  People should be free to post under their real names should they desire to do so, and I post under my real name on at least one web site that enforces a real name policy, but I do think in many cases anonymity is a net benefit.


One thing that’s really important to keep in mind here is that this is often a highly gendered issue.  For women, anonymity online isn’t just a question of identity, it’s also often a question of safety.  I’ve worked in the video game industry, done some game development independently outside of it, and gaming is one of my primary hobbies; it’s an area I know a good deal about, so I’m going to focus on it for a minute.  Women often hide their identities in gaming communities because if they don’t, they’re pretty likely to be subject to harassment over it.  Here are just a couple of examples of the many articles detailing this behaviour for anyone who isn’t familiar with it.

It is obviously true that women shouldn’t have to put up with that type of  behaviour in gaming communities, but even if we take better steps to reduce it (like stronger moderation, which I’m in favour of) many women will continue to be harassed outside of the games themselves; better moderation does nothing to change the fact that some male gamers are tremendous douchebags who will track women down outside of the games and harass them elsewhere.

Thus we’re left with two choices: either allow anonymity in these communities to reduce the odds that women will be harassed for their gender or disallow anonymity and tell women to suck it up.  If we follow the second choice, we’re left with two problems.  The first is that women who want to continue to be a part of these communities will now have no choice but to subject themselves to harassment.  The second is that many women will choose to leave these communities entirely.  Anonymity in this scenario provides very obvious benefits.

Part of the idea behind making people use real identities is that they will be less likely to do things like harass women if their behaviour is attached to their real name.  While this may be true in some cases, on the whole it’s hopelessly naive thinking.  When I used to work for a major game developer a number of the men who worked there engaged in this kind of behaviour in person in the workplace (that management had no interest in dealing with the problem certainly didn’t help).

It’s also true online that the worst offenders are often not especially concerned about people discovering their real identities.  Earlier this year Anita Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a video series about the tropes surrounding female characters in video games.  I won’t give you all the details, but this is one of many stories outlining what happenned.  Among the many forms of harassment that Sarkeesian was subject to, one person made a game in which users could “punch” an image of her face, causing it to become increasingly battered.  When the creator of the game, Ben Spurr, was discovered, he didn’t back down or apologise.  Instead, under his real name and beside a picture of himself, he defended the game.  So too did a number of other men, as captured in this Storify piece about the situation.  Anonymity doesn’t stop trolls.  If anything, real names embolden them because now they have a clear target who is a readily identifiable person to harass.

While I’ve focussed on gaming industry scenarios here because they’re what I’m most familiar with, this is a problem that goes well outside of gaming communities.  Earlier this year at the New Statesman, Helen Lewis wrote a piece collecting the stories of harassment from other female writers.  They were subject to threats of vicious violence, rape, and murde just as Sarkeesian was.  These threats sometimes contain personal details like phone numbers and addresses.  While, thankfully, I’m not aware of any women who have actually been tracked down and assaulted or murdered by online trolls, I think threats and intimidation are still a very serious issue that we ought to treat as such.

Many women do choose to reveal their identities online, of course, but for the reasons I’ve outlined (and others I haven’t, 1000 words into this post) I think it’s a clear benefit to society as a whole (and women in particular) if their ability to remain anonymous online is retained.

[As if on cue, this was retweeted into my Twitter feed as I was writing this post.  There’s a guy who has no problem defending slut-shaming as “socially beneficial” on a Twitter profile that as far as I can tell lists his real name beside an actual photo of his face.  That comment may not constitute harassment on its own, but it’s certainly a defence of harassment.]


One of the major challenges of the ways in which our lives have become connected to and lived through the World Wide Web is that we don’t really yet have a handle on what it means that “the Internet is forever”.  I’m sure lots of people thinking that they do, maybe some of them even do, but I sure don’t and in general I don’t think very many other people do either.  For example, Facebook has only been online for 8 years and has only been open to the general public for 6.  In August of 2008 (just 4 years ago) Facebook had 100 million users, which is only 10% of what is currently has.  Half of all Facebook accounts were created in the past 2 years.  [Wikipedia used for these figures.]  These kinds of technologies are all very new, and it’s virtually impossible to say what kind of effects their continued existence will have several decades from now.

What does this mean though and why should we care?  I’ll give a personal example to demonstrate what I’m getting at.  When I was a teenager, I struggled with depression (I’m depression free and live a very happy life now, if you were wondering).  At the time, like many other people, I kept a blog which was more like a diary than the story-based blogging we’re familiar with now.  And in my blog I wrote about my depression: how I felt, what I thought, how it affected my life.  I did this anonymously.  And I shared this blog and these thoughts with people from other online communities I was a part of, all of which I was a part of anonymously.  Being able to have these outlets to discuss my experiences with depression was helpful, cathartic.  It didn’t fix my problems but it made me feel like someone, somewhere, was concerned (and in the comments I got, people told me that they were).  At the time, that was very important to me.

What if I hadn’t been able to write those posts anonymously?  I certainly would have felt worse to not write them at all.  That would have made my life as a teenager much more difficult, maybe even unbearable.  But if I had written them under my real name, I would have been risking subjecting myself to ridicule and harassment at school, possibly at home as well.  Having an anonymous blog and an anonymous identity in various online communities was a big help to me.

Here’s how this ties into the idea that “the Internet is forever” though: if those comments were attached to my real name and identity, I would essentially be marked with them forever.  Potential employers, for example, could search for my name, find what I’d written, and be scared off from hiring me.  Not hiring someone on the basis of mental illness is illegal, of course, but how would anyone ever know that blog posts I’d written about depression as a teenager were affecting my employment as an adult?

Beyond that, I certainly said and did some very stupid things as a teenager, as virtually everyone does.  Is it really a net benefit to society for those things to be captured in perpetuity in an easily searchable format on the Internet?  I certainly don’t think that it is.  In many cases teenagers post the stupid things they do online under their real names anyway, but I was smart enough not to do that and I’m very thankful that it would be difficult (though not impossible) to learn much about my teenage years through even a very detailed web search (I know how difficult it is because I’ve tried and even armed with very specific information like the pseudonyms I used to post under there’s very little that I was able to turn up).

Now let’s extend this a bit: what if it wasn’t just a few stupid things you’d said as a teenager, but all of the things you’d ever said on the Internet that were available for anyone who wanted to find them?  What if every time you started a new relationship you knew your new significant other would be able to find out all about all the messy break-ups you’d ever written about online just by throwing your name into Google?  What if a potential employer could find out that you played a lot of World of Warcraft, decide that you aren’t likely to be a very good worker, and not hire you?  What if the parishoners at your church could easily find out about something you said or did that they found to be against their beliefs and harassed you for it, especially if you’re part of a community or a family where religion is considered a vital part of social and communal life?  You hcould argue that maybe you shouldn’t want to be a part of that church or that workplace or that relationship, but that’s beside the point – how does enabling these things make our lives better?

It’s possible, of course, that your online identity could be connected to your real life identity even if you use a pseudonym, and as an adult I’ve been much more careful about making sure that I wouldn’t be overly concerned about anything that I say in places like this blog or my Twitter account being attached to my real name at some indeterminate point in the future.  But I would still be a bit less open, a bit less honest, and a bit less interesting if I had no choice but to attach my real identity to them.  I’m aware of the fact that my real identity could become known, but the fact that it’s not especially likely that my real name could be attached to everything I’ve ever said certainly makes me more willing to say what I hope are interesting things.

Here are a few more examples to drive this home: does it provide any real net benefit to society if your boss can quickly and easily find all of the videos you’ve ever commented on on Youtube?  What about if the oppressive religious parents of an LGBT teenager could effortlessly discover the sexual identity that their child felt obliged to hide just by typing their name into Google?  Is our political system going to become any better if the generation of politicians who have grown up using the web were to have their entire online lives dragged through the mud if they run for office when they’re 40?  Anonymity provides many benefits.


One last thing that I want to talk about is the nature of the terms “public” and “anonymous” and what we mean by them.  It may sound like this would have been a good topic to start with, but I think it goes well at the end here, so here we are and there that is.  I have a problem with the way we mark the public/private divide in terms of the Internet.  We often discuss the World Wide Web as though all of it is the same, but it’s not.  Some forums are viewable to anyone who visits them; my posts about hockey on Pension Plan Puppets fall into this category.  But many other things on the web are sectioned off either through limited/audited registration or personal privacy settings: my Facebook account with all of the settings set to “Private” falls in this category.  There are also other things that fall into a bit of a grey area, like online games that limit the number of players who can enter them or require a password to join but are nevertheless on “public” servers.

A lot of people argue that anything on Facebook is essentially posted in public, regardless of privacy settings (Facebook’s constant attempts to frustrate users who try to maintain privacy don’t help).  Part of this argument is that anything posted on Facebook can very easily be shared, so we ought to act as though it’s public.  But this is akin to arguing that because anything I send through the postal service can be taped to a lamp post I ought to treat all of my correspondence as public, or that because any of my conversations may be surreptitiously recorded I ought to treat all of my conversations as public.  This may sound somewhat silly, but it is essentially the argument made by people like Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, who really does think our lives ought to be lived in public.  [As an aside, I’m not sure how seriously we ought to take that assertion; Facebook stands to make a lot of money from advertising if it can connect everything users do to a real identity.  {As an aside to my aside, some of the things Facebook already does in that regard are pretty unethical and at some point I should get around to writing about it.}]

It’s also worth noting that in a pretty significant number of our interactions offline, anonymity, not identity is the default (I may have stolen that point from someone, and if so I apologise for not remembering who and giving you credit for it).  When you go to the grocery store the other shoppers know nothing about you aside from what you look like (and, if they’re nosy, what you’re buying).  The cashier doesn’t know any more about you unless you hand them a credit card with your name on it.  In fact, in this kind of interaction the “real life” people you’re interacting with very likely know less about you than the people in almost any online community you participate in anonymously.

And this is true even in situations where we see people more often.  For example, I play in a recreational basketball league.  Aside from my teammates (who are also coworkers) and the league organisers, no one in the league knows anything about me.  No one knows my name (though they might pick it up if one of my teammates shouts it out), no one knows where I work, how old I am, where I live, or any other personal information about me.  They could find many of these things out by asking me, but that’s not any different than any online community.

It’s certainly true that there is a degree to which it is easier to hold me accountable for my actions in the basketball league than in an online community, particular if my behaviour were to descend into outright harassment or some criminal form of activity.  But generally speaking I remain anonymous in all aspects but my appearance to the other basketball teams, and no one really consideres this to be a major flaw of organised sports.  So if we don’t want to be able to connect the people we play basketball with to things like their address or their job, why do we think these things are necessary or beneficial in online communities?

To connect this back to what I was talking about in the previous section, think about things this way: if you’re at a restaurant with some friends, everything that you say is essentially “public”.  If you were to be quoted in a newspaper or mocked on a Twitter feed for something you said at that restaurant, for example, you’d not have much cause to complain.  And much of the World Wide Web is public just like that restaurant is.  But there’s a significant difference with the WWW, which is that it’s pretty much recorded forever.

So imagine that not only were your conversations in restaurants theoretically public, imagine if every restaurant you ate at had tape recorders to capture everything you said and then published those conversations somewhere easily accessible by the general public.  And imagine that not only were those conversations available, but they were very clearly attached to your real name and identity.  That’s basically what a non-anonymous Internet is.

And in this scenario I’d be willing to bet that most people would either stop going to restaurants, would try to get laws passed preventing this behaviour for the sake of privacy, or would try to find ways to ensure that their conversations were more difficult to attach to their real identities (perhaps by wearing disguises in restaurants or masking their voices in some way).  We would almost certainly not tolerate such behaviour in offline “public” spaces, so why should it be not just acceptable, but the norm in online public spaces?

So I think there is a very strong case to be made for anonymity online.  There are pretty clear and very strong benefits to be gained from it.  The idea that getting rid of anonymity will dramatically improve behaviour online is idealistic and naive.  In many (but not all) cases there are significant downsides to be had from discouraging or not allowing anonymity.  And anonymity is usually the default offline, and that seems to me to be much better than the alternative.  So let’s keep anonymity.  And let’s recognise that it’s actually kind of a good thing after all.

[Please note that I am not defending anonymity as a inviolable or absolute, nor am I defending any one particular case of anonymity; I mean this as an argument in favour of anonymity as an option in principle.]

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