Defending the right to be anonymous online
We should be able to use the web as we want, even if those who hide their identities sometimes act childishly.
Ladyada, Doctor Popular, Grrlscientist and thousands of others with daft monikers were not happy pseudonyms last week. No sooner had they happily signed up and into Google’s fancy-dan new social networking tool, Google+, than they quickly found themselves in violation of Google+’s community standards procedures and promptly had their Google accounts suspended. Their violation? They had not used their real, offline names. And for this particular tool, you have to use your real, offline names, or at least ‘the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you’. Surely a lot of people known as ‘Dickhead’ will be signing up, then?
Google are not waging a war against internet anonymity alone, however. Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg – yes, she is Facebook founder Mark’s sister – also called for an end to online anonymity so as to make people ‘behave a lot better’. ‘I think anonymity on the internet has to go away’, said Zuckerberg: ‘I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.’ It was a remark strongly reminiscent of Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s 2009 retort to criticisms of his company from privacy campaigners: ‘If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know’, Schmidt said, ‘maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place’.
Where Google and Facebook are keen to go – a fully transparent, non-anonymous internet – Western governments have already been busy blazing a trail. Back in May, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was talking of ‘civilising’ the internet. ‘The universe that you represent’, he told digital leaders at the e-G8 forum, ‘is not a parallel universe which is free of rules of law or ethics or of any of the fundamental principles that must govern and do govern the social lives of our democratic states. Don’t forget that behind the anonymous internet user there is a real citizen living in a real society and a real culture and a nation to which he or she belongs, with its laws and its rules.’ In the UK, the anonymous, twittered smashing of a legal injunction that had been preventing the identity of philandering footballer Ryan Giggs from being revealed prompted similar governmental concerns about online lawlessness. UK culture, sport and media secretary Jeremy Hunt declared: ‘we need to get into a situation where regulation and legislation is up to speed with changes in technology’.
So, whether it is from digital companies or from national governments, the drive to further regulate internet users’ activities, chiefly by demanding full transparency on pain of losing access, is gathering momentum. This strikes at the very thing that has long drawn the idealising praise of internet evangelists, from its counter-cultural champions in the mid-90s to their cyber-geek successors in the Noughties, namely, internet freedom. The freedom, that is, to interact with others as one chooses, to express oneself as one sees fit, to behave in ways almost unimaginable in the offline world.
And it’s that freedom which is now deemed the problem. Not just for an authoritarian regime such as China’s, but for supposedly liberal democratic ones, too. This is the striking thing about calls for the reining in of the internet. From the vantage point of Western officialdom, the internet, awash with rambunctious, heavily populated social media, has become an image of what a largely unregulated social life might look like. And in the form of twitch-hunts, cyber bullying, let alone the hack-happy likes of Anonymous, it is not an appealing sight; it is a threatening sight. As far as Western authorities are concerned, this is what people are like if they’re let off the state’s increasingly short leash. They are rude and dangerously gossipy, not to mention libellous, and when the mood seizes a portion of them, liable to go lynching quicker than you can say Jan Moir. What is more, because a twitterer or a blogger or hacktivist can be entirely anonymous, too often, they’re unaccountable to the state. Hence the rein-them-in sentiment of government and digital companies alike, one captured best by Randi Zuckerberg’s urge to make people ‘behave a lot better’.
The prospect of companies forcing people to forgo anonymity when using the internet is clearly not something to be applauded if you support people’s freedom to act and speak as they see fit. And the thought of the state finding it even easier to feel a few offline collars simply because of what someone’s said, all in the name of ‘civilising’ the internet, is truly worrying.
Yet, a defence of our freedom, online and offline, does not mean you automatically have to venerate specific manifestations of internet freedom. From the anonymous @superinjunction twitter account responsible for outing Ryan Giggs and countless other naughty celebs, to the website defacing, ‘denial of service’-attacking Anonymous crew, a lot of what passes for the exercise of internet freedom is simultaneously infantile and cowardly. It is as if the online world has become the inverse of its censorious, offline parallel world. The paternalistic, you-can’t-say-that culture that has so permeated our real lives, reducing adults to children uncertain of what they can and can’t say, has generated its reaction online. Here, internet users kick, child-like, against offline authority, saying all the things that they have been told not to.
That some users do so anonymously, writ large in the form of Anonymous, makes sense given the legal repercussions of some of their actions. But more often than not it just reinforces the impression of groups of kids acting up – the virtual equivalent of tippexing a penis on to a teacher’s car. Of course, anonymity has been used by the likes of Ben Franklin and Voltaire so that they could express their views without the British or French state being able to prosecute them. But in the West today, this tactic, a subterfuge rendered historically necessary by the absence of freedom of speech, has been turned into a virtue, an end-in-itself to be rigorously defended.
The ideal of freedom of speech, this freedom above all liberties as John Milton called it, is not realised in today’s censorious, offline climate. But neither is it realised in its infantile online kickback. To defend freedom of speech is to defend the freedom from having to hide your views. That’s the point. You want to be able express yourself, to give vent to your opinion, because what you’re saying matters to you. You want to be able to stand by your utterance, not leave it to its own devices in the twittered, networked parallel world of the internet. One doubts that those spreading gossip about celebrities, and sometimes colleagues, are desperate to stand by their words.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.