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Social movements need anonymity, but corporations are taking it away

In an age of online hate mobs and mass surveillance, anonymity is becoming a scarce resource for those who need it most

July 1, 2015 2:00AM ET

It’s not easy to be anonymous on the Internet these days. Some would argue it’s impossible. But in a time of rampant trolling, hacking and corporate and government mass surveillance, the protective cloak of anonymity and online pseudonyms has never been more vital to marginalized groups and social movements around the world.

It’s easy to forget this after last week’s historic Supreme Court victory for marriage equality, a milestone that many LGBT activists never expected to witness in their lifetimes. Marriage is only a first step, and many have correctly cautioned that there is still a long way to go in ending systemic discrimination. But we should also remember that like many social movements, gay rights began with illegal and transgressive acts that used privacy and anonymity to pave the way toward acceptance.

In the 1950s, the Mattachine Society, named after a medieval secret society that donned masks to criticize the French monarchy, became one of the earliest national gay rights groups in the United States. The group’s use of anonymity was at times both functional and symbolic. The identities of its founders were hidden and its early members took oaths of secrecy, while simultaneously promoting visibility and acceptance through education, counseling services and lobbying against discriminatory laws.

At that time, the law criminalized consensual sex between gay adults in all 50 states, creating a disgraceful history of police entrapment, civil harassment and anti-gay violence. And in 1986, in the midst of the AIDS crisis and less than 30 years prior to last week’s marriage equality verdict, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not grant “a fundamental right to homosexuals to engage in acts of consensual sodomy.” It would take 17 more years for the Court to overturn this in Lawrence v. Texas.

Consider the oppressive technological potential of today’s police and governments and imagine, briefly, how we might have reached last week’s victory if the gay liberation movement had begun today. How many future movements will be silently quashed and brutalized under the boot heel of an inescapable surveillance state?

These are not hypothetical questions. Today, corporate interests — often more so than governments — are chipping away at any possibility of remaining anonymous on the Internet.

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest offenders is Facebook. The company’s “real name” policy drew the ire of drag performers and the LGBT community last year after forcing them to either expose their birth names in their profiles or stop using the service — an ultimatum previously given to pseudonymous Chinese bloggers and Honduran activists.

Last week, the policy raised its ugly head again when Facebook suspended the account of Laurie Penny, a prolific feminist writer known for tackling issues of sexism and social justice online. On at least one occasion, Penny has been forced to leave her home following rape and death threats from misogynist hate mobs. Her account was shuttered because she was using a pseudonym to avoid harassers. (Facebook restored the account after the ban made headlines, but did so under Penny’s well-known pen name, not the alias she used to dodge trolls).

Facebook has argued that its “authentic names” policy “creates a safer community for everyone” by cracking down on fake accounts, which are often used for stalking and harassment. But its justifications are undermined in a new report from the National Network to End Domestic Violence. Despite the policy, 99 percent of respondents cited Facebook as the platform on which victims most frequently experience harassment. By a wide margin, women and LGBT individuals were also found to be the most common targets of that same harassment.

We mustn’t allow governments and corporations to take away anonymity simply because it can be used to attack as well as defend.

Even as Facebook encouraged users to #CelebratePride and entered a float in Sunday’s Pride Parade in San Francisco following the Supreme Court’s ruling, the company banned one of its former employees last week — a transgender woman who designed the service’s custom gender options — for not using an “authentic” name in her personal profile. “Facebook [has] handed an enormous hammer to those who would like to silence us,” she wrote in a piece on Medium. “Time after time I see that hammer coming down on trans women who have just stepped out of line by suggesting that perhaps we’re being mistreated.”

Another hammer comes in the form of a disastrous new proposal under consideration by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the formerly-U.S. Department of Commerce controlled non-profit that governs web domains. Currently, when you register a web domain, your name, physical address and contact information are publicly available, accessible to anyone through a quick WHOIS search. However, owners have the option of paying a small annual fee for an anonymizing service that supplants its own contact information instead of the registrant’s (which can still be obtained with a court order).

But under the new proposal, these services would be effectively banned. Website owners — whether a giant corporation, a small business or your own mother — would be required to publicly list their real names, addresses and phone numbers to register a domain name, making it even easier for trolls to “dox” people, or circulate their sensitive information on the Internet for crowd-sourced harassment.

Worst of all, the change is being pushed by lobbyists for the entertainment industry, part of another misguided attempt to fight online piracy and copyright infringement. This is the same group that in 2011 authored two reckless Internet censorship bills — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) — that proposed turning a group of copyright holders into the Internet’s de facto censorship bureau.

Of course, it’s a long-acknowledged irony that anonymity can shield both victims and their abusers. In the 1981 science fiction novella “True Names,” proto-cyberpunk author Vernor Vinge envisioned a virtual world ruled by shadowy hacker-warlocks whose powers are feared, but who are killed or made government servants if anyone learns their real names.

Today’s online mobs benefit from the same anonymity when they troll, harass and humiliate their victims. But just like with encryption, we mustn’t allow governments and corporations to take away anonymity simply because it can be used to attack as well as defend. The parody Twitter account @SwiftOnSecurity, which offers computer security advice in the voice of pop star Taylor Swift, said it best: “There is power in an alias” to do great harm, but also the power to be “Free from the past. And the future. To be clean.”

We should celebrate last week’s victory for marriage equality and praise those who fought for decades to achieve it. But if there is one enduring lesson of the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s this: History teaches us time and again that today’s deviants and law-breakers are often tomorrow’s activists and civil rights leaders. If the technology we are building allows no safe haven for the rebel, the outcast and the troublemaker, that future will belong to despots and demagogues who would enforce their own values, lifestyles and priorities over those of others.

Janus Kopfstein is a journalist and researcher from New York City focused on contemporary themes of surveillance, technology, privacy and power. He is the author of “Lawful Intercept,” a semiregular newsletter of dystopian nonfiction.

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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