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Anonymity helps us curate our online selves

Anonymous communication frees Internet users from the whims of law enforcement and the free hand of the market

December 9, 2014 2:00AM ET

From increased demands for encryption and private browsing to using pseudonyms online, the post–Edward Snowden era has renewed the conversation about online privacy.

A Pew Research poll released on Nov. 12 found that a whopping 91 percent of adults surveyed believed consumers have lost control of how companies collect and use their personal data. At least 70 percent of social networking site users expressed concern about the government accessing information shared on social media sites without their permission.

The market has tapped into these concerns. A wave of apps that make anonymous or pseudonymous communication a breeze (or at least claim to), such as Whisper, Snapchat and Yik Yak, has flooded the market. Even Facebook — whose co-founder Mark Zuckerberg once lambasted the use of pseudonyms on the social media site, arguing that having different online and offline identities “is an example of a lack of integrity” — has come around. Facebook recently launched an anonymous mobile app, which allows users to start invitation-only chat rooms based on shared interests. The company now offers direct support for users of the online anonymity network Tor who wish to access the social network without sharing identifying information such as their IP address and physical location.

However, these changes have seen pushback, particularly from law enforcement. The FBI, whose Director James Comey has repeatedly blasted Apple and Google’s efforts to encrypt their servers, recently raided several Tor-based websites. The operation, unmistakably dubbed Operation Onymous (i.e., no longer anonymous), claims to have quashed more than 400 black market domains. It’s a huge victory for law enforcement against Tor’s seemingly impermeable defenses.

We need a holistic understanding of privacy that protects anonymity online and is not dependent on the free hand of the market or the whims of law enforcement. As consumers spend more and more time online, we need to adopt an understanding of privacy that acknowledges the increasing symbiosis of the online and the offline as well as the importance of anonymity in constructing identity. In other words, a modern definition of privacy should make ample room for, not crowd out, spaces of anonymous expression.

Uninhibited cyberspace

Debunking the dualism between the online and the offline should begin with an understanding of our relationship with the digital world.

Science fiction writer William Gibson first coined the term “cyberspace” in his 1982 short story collection “Burning Chrome.” Although its use proliferated rapidly, Gibson would later describe the term, according to Wired, as an “‘evocative and essentially meaningless’ buzzword” that could apply to any cybernetic theories. But the coinage stuck, along with its misleading connotations. When described through spatial metaphors, the online world is rendered as a world unto its own, separate and distinct from the real, or offline, world.

Critics say our online activities represent this dualism, particularly when we choose to remain anonymous. For example, the online disinhibition effect refers to an apparent discrepancy between individuals’ uninhibited online activity and their behavior in the real world. According to John Suler, who introduced the phrase in 2004, once sheltered behind this veil of anonymity, users let go of traditional inhibitions and are freer to act. The activity that results from this freedom may be benign (e.g., working through mental health issues, exploring sexuality or dealing with grief), but it could just as easily be aggressive or hateful. The Web operates differently: What happens in anonymous cyberspace stays in cyberspace. GamerGate, an online movement ostensibly about the ethics of video game journalism that has been criticized for having misogynistic roots, is the most recent example of this.

There has been an ongoing push to de-anonymize our interactions on the Web. As Zuckerberg noted in 2010 and Google+ has unsuccessfully tried to enforce since 2011, one way to prevent abuse is to require users to use their real names online. Proponents of singular online identity say it increases accountability and authenticity.

Anonymity allows Internet users to engage in interactions that mirror those in the real world.

To assume that eliminating anonymous online identities can easily repair user misbehavior in cyberspace is deeply problematic. First, skeptics view de-anonymization in the context of government and industry interests. As Catherine Crump wrote in The Stanford Law Review, a singular online identity simplifies the process of data retention, making “it easier to link acts to actors [and promote] the value of accountability, while diminishing the values of privacy and anonymity.”

“Tools that permit anonymity have long been available to everyone, including criminals. The difference here is that regular people are now using encryption or anonymization by default. What this interferes with is, by definition, mass surveillance,” Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law and the faculty director at the Tech Policy Lab, said in an email.

Second, online data retention is far more widespread and permanent — and often out of our control. (After all, our Facebook profile is not stored on a server in our homes.) For instance, if a user posts an angry tweet and then removes it hours later, the post remains on Twitter’s servers and can also be cached elsewhere. Searches on service providers such as Amazon and Facebook can be tied to an online profile. By contrast, human memory is more forgivable. If we miss a parent or significant other’s birthday, chances are he or she is more likely to forget than forgive.

Third, assuming virtual misbehavior is a result of fragmentation of identity ignores the fact that our online and offline selves are already bound together. As Crump notes, for better or for worse, “cyberspace is part of lived space, and it is through its connections to lived space that cyberspace must be comprehended.”

“Social media is part of ourselves; the Facebook source code becomes our own code,” wrote Nathan Jurgenson for The New Inquiry in 2012. We now have “Twitter lips and Instagram eyes.” If we lived entirely digitally, selfies would become screen shots and humorous Facebook updates would be exclusively about interactions we had online. This interaction and interplay with real life keeps social media from being entirely dull.

Anonymity preserves identity

Anonymity advocates say anonymous online interactions are key to preserving and building online identities. “The ability to be anonymous is increasingly important because it gives people control,” said Andrew Lewman, the executive director of the Tor Project, in The Guardian in 2012. “It lets them figure out their identity and explore what they want to do or to research topics that aren’t necessarily ‘them’ and may not want tied to their real name for perpetuity.”

Others say they feel safe sharing new ideas and opinions anonymously because their online musings will be judged only by people they don’t know in real life. “I’ve been tweeting my personal experience of loss, which was made easier because I was cushioned by anonymity,” wrote Shakti, a pseudonymous Twitter user, in an email. “Using a pseud helped me to try out new ways of thinking … I was evolving as I learned how to deal with losing my husband and way of life.”

Anonymity also allows Internet users to engage in interactions that mirror those in the real world. “Online, using pseudonyms is actually more like our ordinary face-to-face experience,” Judith S. Donath, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, wrote in Wired. “Face to face, we develop relationships in separate contexts — and the things we talk about, the jokes we make, the secrets we reveal — vary tremendously.”

Anonymity, then, is a means of providing users with not just control over what data they make publicly available but also a way to curate our online selves. By using systems that allow us to choose what we do and don’t make public, we are defining privacy as empowerment. As Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of the Center on Privacy, Technology and the Law at Georgetown University, said in his testimony before the U.S. Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board on Nov. 12, “privacy empowers one to control the dissemination of personal information and to prevent the nonconsensual taking of that data.” Privacy gives us the space and the will to act freely and without judgment.

Ultimately, if we are truly seeking a digital experience that mirrors or at least plays off the real world, we should seek to foster these diverse identities and the anonymous interactions that construct them.

Hannah Gais is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The American Prospect, First Things, U.S. News and World Report and The Moscow Times.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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