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.