Privacy, Anonymity, and Identity Part II: Anonymity and Privacy Distinguished

Anonymity is Not Privacy

Anonymity and privacy are not the same thing. There is overlap. While the ability to be anonymous is related to privacy, they are different.

Failure to recognize this difference has confused many discussions about online privacy.

Privacy is often passive. We have data out there, some of it public, some of it semi-public. Much of it is only intended for a small group of people. Privacy is the ability to keep access to that data limited to those we intend to have it.

Anonymity is more active. We engage, perform some kind of action, but we keep our identity secret. Sometimes these two ideas overlap, often they are in conflict. In a classic privacy violation, the person who is doing the violating is doing so anonymously.

Cyberbullying, Trolling, and Lulz

People doing bad things anonymously is a common ingredient in several social ills. Cyberbullying can include threats of rape and death. That the source of these threats is unknown magnifies their power. One group of hackers even calls itself Anonymous, identifying the key element that allows it to function. Anonymous organizes on a specific sub-section of the online platform called 4Chan. One of the key features of 4Chan is that users do not have any screen name—they are all “anonymous.” As a result, many of the more disturbing things you can find online either start from, or find a home on 4Chan.

The larger platforms have taken note, and sometimes decide that the solution to online ills is to end anonymity. Google, Facebook, and online gaming giant Blizzard have all taken turns trying to force users to use their actual identity when signed in.

Blizzard is the company behind the largest online massive multiplayer game known as World of Warcraft. Many the game’s players also participate in online forums discussing the ins and outs of game mechanics as well as other topics. These forums often cross the line into highly abusive territory. Blizzard thought that this issue could be resolved by requiring forum participants to use their real names. The response was overwhelmingly negative. According to one article, over 30,000 people added protest comments on a single forum thread.

In 2011 Google stepped up to the plate when the introduced their new Google + social network. Though the real name policy was, on its surface, not that different than Facebook’s, Google used an algorithm to enforce the rules. The backlash to this policy was so strong that it became known as the Nymwars. Google finally backed down and allowed pseudonyms to be used on their platform.

Facebook had escaped scrutiny for its real name policy. Many praised it for having a lower level of abuse and bullying, presumably because most of the users were identifiable. But once the Nymwars were blazing, Facebook started making noises of its own. Reminding everyone that it also had a real name policy, it tried to change the name of Salman Rushdie’s account to the name he was born with: Ahmed Rushdie. Randi Zuckerberg, the sister of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was the director of Facebook marketing. She stirred the pot with a quote about real names:

I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.

The Greater Fuckwad Theory

The forces that oppose anonymity online are making two arguments.

The first, as we’ve already laid out, is that anonymity does not equal privacy. Participating on these platforms is voluntary, and you can use privacy settings to control who sees particular updates. The only restriction is that, if you do say something, whomever you say it to will know who you are.

The second has been stated many ways, but the most memorable is known as John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. The theory was presented as a cartoon on Penny Arcade, and has since been widely shared whenever anonymous commenters do abusive things online. Here is the original panel:


Not Everyone Can Be Randi Zuckerberg

If the world were made of people more or less like Randi Zuckerberg, who rarely experience threatening behavior or oppression because of who they are, this would all make sense. Randi Zuckerberg is a woman, and women are often subject to serious, threatening harassment for speaking on topics such as feminism, gaming, and even who should be on postage stamps. The worst of this often comes from anonymous sources.

But the world has a lot of people who face harassment, violence, and oppression because of who they are, and from people who are far more real. Many of these people live in places, or in situations where they are far more vulnerable than Randi Zuckerberg. The threats they face may come from an stalkers, political foes, or an oppressive government; forces more powerful than typical online trolls. Often, being anonymous is the only way these people can add their voices to important conversations. Anonymity may not be the same as privacy, but it does allow people who need to stay hidden to speak or act publicly. Sometimes that can be very important.

A number of writers have offered powerful defenses of anonymity.

For instance Danah Boyd, one of the first serious Internet ethnographers wrote an article that titled “Real Names” Policies Are and Abuse of Power.  In it she debunks the argument that real names has made Facebook a better place, when in fact a huge number of Facebook users are using pseudonyms. Boyd provides a more sophisticated analysis of why Facebook is a more civil environment, which includes its origin as a walled community, then evolution into a multi-generational public place.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote a defense of pseudonyms that included a quote from Supreme Court Justice Paul Stevens:

“Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation—and their ideas from suppression—at the hand of an intolerant society. The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.”

One popular page that expanded rapidly during the Nymwars was the Geekfeminism Wiki. Editors compiled a huge list of people and situations where the ability to be anonymous was critical. This includes marginalized and endangered groups, individuals with direct identity concerns, employment issues and subject matter concerns.

Is There a Right Answer?

There certainly is not an easy one. In a world where a woman can anonymous death threats because she advocated putting Jane Austen on British currency, it’s tempting to find some way to make everyone visible.

But many women are also using pseudonyms to avoid harassment. And for women who are actively being stalked, the danger of using their actual identity online is great enough that they would probably have to not participate at all if that were the only way.

My take is still that anonymity is critical. Some people will use it to do bad things, and many will use it just to be annoying. But there is just no other way that some people and whole groups can fully participate in our online world.

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