Best arguments for and against online anonymity
November 5, 2019 8:26 AM   Subscribe

What are the best-written arguments you've seen both for and against preserving online anonymity?

I'm interested in anything, although stuff with an academic or similar pedigree is preferred. I'm basically looking to understand the shape of the debate concerning the value and/or problems related to the ability of people to exist and interact online in a state of relative anonymity (a debate I know basically nothing about), and what sorts of policy recommendations have been made either to protect anonymity, to weaken it. I'd like to get up to speed on the major ideas, the people and groups who've staked out important positions, etc. Academic articles, op-eds, policy or white papers, anything would be useful.
posted by saladin to Computers & Internet (9 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
danah boyd is a researcher who has talked a lot about people, especially oung people, who inhabit online spaces. She's a real fan of anonymity and her essay Real Name Policies Are An Abuse of Power is a good read. There's also a great older article on First Monday “Anonymity, pseudonymity, and the agency of online identity: Examining the social practices of r/Gonewild” about a subreddit where people share nudes, presumably of themselves.

As an aside: MeFi allows users to be anonymous (pseudonymous, you must have a consistent identity for the most part) but not totally anonymous to the mods (they have information on you on the back end that is not shared) which is along the continuum of anonymity but not actually allowing people to be anonymous.
posted by jessamyn at 8:36 AM on November 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Anonymity is important for at-risk people:
LGBT teens with homophobic families;
tenants trying to get advice on terrible landlords;
workers trying to get advice on unionising;
domestic violence survivors trying to get advice on escaping...
posted by Murderbot at 8:47 AM on November 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

At risk people continued:
political organizers in other countries, for now.
posted by Botanizer at 9:18 AM on November 5, 2019

Bruce Schneier is the most articulate voice on this I can think of.The Internet: Anonymous Forever. He clarifies that anonymity does not exist outside accountability and simple human error (people lose their passwords, etc).
posted by artlung at 10:18 AM on November 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

One of the more compelling arguments I've encountered (which I believe Schneier touches on occasionally) is that reliable non-anonymity is very difficult to enforce, and assuming it presupposes an uncomfortable degree of state or large-corporate control over daily life. In other words, if you mandate that everyone use their real names, then you have to come up with a way to enforce that, and doing that gets pretty ugly—the enforcement mechanism itself opens up avenues of abuse that are arguably worse than just allowing anonymity in the first place.

There is also a distinction in some discourse between "strong" anonymity and "weak" anonymity, analogous to strong vs. weak encryption. Strong anonymity is generally assumed to guarantee the anonymousness of communications even against state actors with full control of the network, e.g. something like Tor. Weak anonymity is more like Metafilter, where you can create an account with any name you like, but a state-level actor with the ability to subpoena server logs and financial records, as well as the ability to monitor the network at the backbone level, can probably link an account to a real-world person with enough effort and motivation. This distinction is important because there are some arguments for or against anonymity that are only true for one vs. the other. E.g. most of the arguments that anonymity will lead to the proliferation of child abuse content or promote terrorism assume strong anonymity, but a review of most extant services shows that weak anonymity is actually the norm and probably more in line with what people actually want.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:34 AM on November 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

My not-uncommon real name is the same as that of a notorious pervert, who has been prominent in the news of a major city. He's not me, but if I were forced to use that name on public forums, I'd have to severely limit my participation in them. The one time I revealed my name, it almost immediately caused mistaken-identity trouble.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:59 PM on November 5, 2019

Real Names Considered Harmful, perspectives of Google employees fighting against the Google+ Real Names policy.
posted by kdar at 10:02 PM on November 5, 2019

This is all really helpful, thanks.

Are there credible, well-developed arguments against anonymity? I'd be interested in reading any worthwhile sources y'all can recommend on the other side of the debate.

Edit: beyond the Kaspersky piece linked in the Bruce Schneier article.
posted by saladin at 4:52 AM on November 6, 2019

Solove, Daniel J. "I've got nothing to hide and other misunderstandings of privacy." San Diego L. Rev. 44 (2007): 745. pdf . Good takedown of the false privacy (incl. anonymity) and security dichotomy.
posted by meijusa at 10:04 AM on November 6, 2019

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