You Know It’s Me

An important part of my current (and, to me, really exciting) project is the concept of anonymity on the Internet, or lack thereof. Co-Op’s own, Daniel Solove, whose amazing work I have devoured poured over and over read and analyzed many times, has written about this at length, coining the term “traceable anonymity” to refer to this one element of privacy vis-a-vis our Internet selves — I could call myself “youwillneverknowitsme” on my Wikipedia account, but Jimmy Wales could know it’s me by following my IP address.

Traceable anonymity seems to me the baseline for Web 2.0, with the Internet only getting less anonymous as we progress to newer and even more exciting technologies. Social media, for example, already despises anonymity: Facebook has more than 500 million users; 1 in 5 relationships begin through online dating sites, none of which are anonymous; an increasing number of media websites are requiring their users to log in and provide a valid email address in order to comment on posted news stories; and even interactions that might start out anonymous can end in picture and email exchanges, both of which link your online self to your physical self.

The most basic debate is whether this is a good thing. That fascinating discussion is probably more about our individual values than anything else. But, there are at least two more interesting questions (at least to me):

First, is no anonymity the same as no expectation/right of privacy? I don’t think so, though this is a topic I have just started thinking about and reserve the right to change my mind when I learn more and smarter people teach me more. Sometimes privacy means anonymity — John and Jane Doe filings for domestic abuse victims, for example, a topic that Co-Op’s own, the fantastic Danielle Citron, has worked on. But, privacy is not always synonymous with anonymity, as such. We have privacy rights in our person, but the existence of those rights does not depend on us being cloaked from the law entirely.

Second, what are the costs of less (or no) anonymity? One of the frustrating things about online hate and harassment is that it is cheap — there are no transaction costs to hate and little personal and contingent costs after harassing. In other words, it is safer to harass online than in person. The less anonymity, then, the higher the costs of harassing, and that might be a good thing. I could also argue that less anonymity raises the costs of online speech, in general, by snuffing out robust online conversations about politics. But, what exactly would be snuffed out? Things you would never say in person? Again, maybe that’s a good thing.

Of course, I am playing a little bit of the devil’s advocate here, but the conversation is worth having.

Another tid bit I find worth discussing.

When I discuss this lack of anonymity on the Internet with others, I notice a pattern. Older interlocutors, say over 40 (though let me be clear: I do not consider 40 to be “old”) generally agree, but never really thought the Internet was anonymous to begin with. My peers, say 26-40, are the most agreeable. We remember when American Online had chat rooms that you could enter anonymously after creating a pseudonym (thanks to Co-Op reader and hopefully future prof AG for reminding me about that) and have seen the Internet change over the years. But, kids today, say under 25, do not have any conception of anonymity on the Internet. Even if they have a pseudonym here or there, they nonchalantly say something like this: “oh, yeah, ive given people my email or shown them my pictures, im sure they could find me if they wanted.” I am no English major, but that’s hardly what Walt Whitman thought of when he referred to “perfect nonchalance.” At a minimum, that cavalier behavior is something we as parents/aunts/uncles/grandparents have to deal with when our young charges start spending time online.

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9 Responses

  1. anon says:

    I knew that Dan Solove’s work was many worthwhile things, but an endlessly pourable liquid?

  2. Ari Waldman says:

    haha! thanks, @anon (apt name for a comment to the post, by the way). what an odd way for me to write that and my apologies to the more viscous and less pourable Professor Solove.

  3. Orin Kerr says:

    Ari, are you talking about *actual* privacy/anonymity or *perceived* privacy/anonymity? Consider this example:

    My peers, say 26-40, are the most agreeable. We remember when American Online had chat rooms that you could enter anonymously after creating a pseudonym (thanks to Co-Op reader and hopefully future prof AG for reminding me about that) and have seen the Internet change over the years. But, kids today, say under 25, do not have any conception of anonymity on the Internet.

    The irony is that AOL screennames were not anonymous at all. Every AOL screenname was associated with an account, and each account was associated with a real person, real address, and real credit card number for billing. All the government had to do to identify you was to serve a subpoena on AOL (no cause needed to so do) to disclose the name address, credit card info, etc. associated with the screenname. Actual identity was a subpoena away.

  4. Ari Waldman says:

    Thanks for the comment, Orin. Undoubtedly, users tend to think about perceived anonymity. As I explore more fully in my ongoing project, real anonymity is rare and getting more rare. However, the AOL case is an inapt stand-in example for websites that used to allow users (usually underaged users) to pop in to a chat room meant for kids to chat about, say, sex. I wanted to keep the conversation about anonymity rather about kids talking about sex, so I cleaned up the example. In any event, in my work, I am referring to actual anonymity and agree with you wholeheartedly about it being just a step away; users have a perception of anonymity that isn’t really there.

  5. Regarding “… could know it’s me by following my IP address.”

    I assume you know IP addresses don’t automatically map to people. Those who are serious about hiding their identity use different IP addresses, via various proxy servers.

    In fact, Wikipedia has an ongoing problem with people assuming multiple identities (“sockpuppet”), and IP address checking only catches the less sophisticated ones. And even that is complicated. There’s been quite a few scandals in this regard. See, for example:

  6. Ari Waldman says:

    Thanks for the comment, Seth! Indeed. I don’t mean to imply it’s as easy as clicking on a button and finding out that it’s Bob Dylan on the other end of a comment, but as a matter of practice and theory, there seems to me to be a very big difference between anonymity as such and obscured identity that could be cleared up. More importantly for my work, the trend is for less anonymity. There is a host of evidence out there showing a decrease in anonymity, but I’m always interested to see counter examples (or helpful examples!).

  7. Ari,

    It’s definitely worth checking out the online symposium that CoOp held on my article Cyber Civil Rights. In CCR, I argued that we ought to have an orderly articulation of the standard of care for website operators, rather than the blanket immunity as Section 230 is now interpreted. Citing Dan and Tal Zarsky, I argued that the standard of care should include requiring website operators to configure their sites to collect and retain visitors’ IP addresses. At the CCR symposium, Steven Bellovin, David Robinson, Michael Froomkin, and Nathaniel Gleicher addressed this suggestion, providing important criticism as a technical and normative matter. (Other folks had different, important critiques too, like Nancy Kim, Ann Bartow, Helen Norton, Dave Fagundes, James Grimmelmann, Paul Ohm, Orin Kerr, and many others). I would definitely read those criticisms. Also Denver U. Law Review did a symposium on my work on cyber harassment and cyber civil rights and Paul Ohm and Wendy Seltzer had really interesting feedback on traceable anonymity. Their comments and my response are published online with Denver U. L. Review. I would definitely check out those discussions and debates for helpful comments.

    Thanks for your fantastic blogging!!

  8. There is developing law on the First Amendment right to remain anonymous on the Internet. See e.g., Dendrite Intern., Inc. v. Doe No. 3, 775 A.2d 756, 342 N.J. Super. 134 (N.J. Super. Ch., 2001); Mobilisa, Inc. v. Doe, 170 P.3d 712, 217 Ariz. 103 (Ariz. App., 2007); In Re Anonymous Online Speakers, 611 F.3d 653 (9th Cir., 2010) and so on.

  9. Ari Waldman says:

    @Danielle: Thanks so much! Those resources are indeed excellent and I’ve already devoured some of them. Thanks for the suggestions!

    @David: Indeed. This is an important and developing area at teh state level. Dendrite is a particularly seminal case. Thanks!