Scitech | Behind the screen

The case for online anonymity

Anonymity allows people to express themselves without the fear of repercussion for their ideas. It allows for an unbiased audience and forms a critical part of our privacy in a digital age.

The concept of anonymity and pseudonymity predate the advent of the internet, which is a recent phenomenon dating back only 25 years. However, thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to publicly share ideas and messages anonymously in a matter of seconds.

One of the larger groups of people for whom anonymity is the most beneficial is activists. In many cases, anonymity is a must in order for people to stand up for their cause without having to fear for their lives. A very popular group that utilizes this concept is Anonymous, an international network of activists and hacktivists. Gabriella Coleman, who holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill, has done extensive research on Anonymous. The group criticizes various aspects of society, all while keeping their identities hidden and evading authorities. Coleman in an interview with The Daily explained that anonymity is more than just tradition in this community. “[Anonymous] is critical of celebrity culture […] it critiques fame-seeking.” This is another reason they rely on anonymity – without it, fighting for a cause may turn into a popularity contest of ‘who’s the best activist.’

The Anonymous community is completely dependent on the concept of online anonymity. Via a CBC radio show, an ‘anon’ explains: “We just happen to be a group of people on the internet who need — just kind of an outlet to do as we wish, that we wouldn’t be able to do in regular society. […] That’s more or less the point of it. Do as you wish.”

People use private chat rooms, blogs, and forums simply because of the fact that there, they are able to obtain or share information without being exposed. Whether it be talking about personal matters that would be embarrassing to discuss in person, or exposing corrupt government or corporate practices, anonymity is embedded into the internet as we know it.

Anonymity allows people to discuss ideas they wouldn’t bring up if their identity was revealed simply due to the fear of ridicule, rejection, or in some cases prosecution.

It helps for information to flow freely. When people are aware that they are being heard, they are more careful with what they say. In the words of Michel Foucault, “If the prisoner is never sure when he is being observed, he becomes his own guardian.”

Unfortunately, anonymity is a two-way street. Just as it lets people express themselves freely in a positive manner, it can also be abused for nefarious purposes. For example, one of the larger problems with online anonymity that several campuses have experienced has been the spread of misogynistic and racist ideas through the use of YikYak, an anonymous social media app. Last week, at the University of Georgia, a student was found dead in her room. On the very same night her body was found, a student posted a profoundly racist comment on YikYak. This led to the question of whether or not the student would have posted the comment if there was a degree of accountability involved, as the university would definitely have taken disciplinary action. A similar case developed at Stanford University, where earlier this year a student was accused of sexual assault. Once again, taking advantage of the anonymity that YikYak provides, a student posted a Yak promoting rape culture. According to The Guardian students at Stanford, said the Yaks were “collective horror, tasteless victim-blaming, and outright misogyny.” Again, no one was held accountable and most of the evidence vanished into thin air, as Yaks are periodically deleted.

Students are aware that once you put something online, it is there forever, and will most likely come back to affect future job prospects, which is why they would hesitate to post sexist, racist, or insensitive comments with their name on it, as it would be documented forever. YikYak offers the opportunity for them to say whatever they desire to their community without any accountability for their statements whatsoever.

In Canada, the government is attempting to regulate online anonymity. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper revealed the government’s intention to pass a bill that would allow “the removal [of] terrorist propaganda” from the internet. It would further allow the government to imprison anyone who “knowingly advocates or promotes the commission of terrorism offences.” What the government considers “terrorist” propaganda and “promoting” terrorism is not clear. Privacy Commissioner Daniel Therrien explained in a statement to the press that Bill C-51, or the Anti-Terrorism Act, “would seemingly allow departments and agencies to share the personal information of all individuals, including ordinary Canadians who may not be suspected of terrorist activities, for the purpose of detecting and identifying new security threats.”

While some people argue that they ‘have nothing to hide,’ the fact is that Bill C-51 is simply a threat to freedom of speech. It threatens the online anonymity that allows activists to move forward with their ideas. It limits freedom of speech by removing content which the government deems a threat, and could imprison innocent critics. “Protecting anonymous free speech does not work unless you have anonymous protection,” explains Coleman. Canadians can think for themselves – for the government to think otherwise is insulting.

Online anonymity is clearly a double-edged sword; nonetheless, its consequences depend a lot on the milieu under which anonymity is used. Although it can clearly lead to sexist, racist, or otherwise harmful ideas to spread quickly, it is important to consider the many benefits it offers. Anonymity cannot be lost without risking the loss of freedom of speech.