Reading Jen’s blog entry about anonymity really makes one think about all of the problems derived from the difficulty of identifying someone on the internet. A backdoor to a computer here, a remote login from a server there, and the dedicated person seeking to hide their true identity makes it very hard for anyone trying to track them down. You are already somewhat anonymous by merits of the internet’s structure, and it is quite easy to become even more so.
In some cases, this leads to the sort of unfortunate harassment seen in the case of Nikki Catsouras; this is a perverse misuse of anonymity. Sadly, it is by no means a unique event. Internet anonymity fairly recently gave us a social tragedy in the form of a site for cruel gossip called JuicyCampus. People use the Internet in crime, for fraud, for distribution of child pornography. They can use it for baseless slander and defamation, threats, and even for finding victims as with the Craigslist killer.
Can we legislate in any way that makes it easier for law enforcement to track people down? I think so. We could at least make it more difficult to hide. As an example, if we are dealing with e-mail or something posted on a message board or blog, the IP address from which the connection was made is likely logged. Of course, that need not be linked to the actual user if they use an anonymizing server. However, we could put requirements on the operators of such servers, holding them liable if they did not, to log the connections made through them. We could then begin to unravel the mystery of identity when necessary.
Nonetheless, I do not really want that sort of answer to this problem. Yes, relative anonymity on the internet leads to some awful things, but it is not without redeeming qualities. Most importantly, it allows people to speak out in legitimate ways. That ability is something our country has valued dating all the way back to the days leading up to the American Revolution. The famous early example of using anonymity in criticizing government is Paine’s Common Sense. Today, people living under oppressive regimes around the world can use internet anonymity to speak out without revealing their identity. This anonymity is very important when such a revelation could lead to the government punishing them for their views. Similarly, people in the United States could speak out against the practices of their company or a client of their company without concern for losing their livelihood. In these cases, speaking out may facilitate some greater good.
In general, anonymity simply provides a layer of protection for someone who wants to express an unpopular view. I believe these reasons are amongst the strongest motivations for preserving anonymity, but I think there are other legitimate and inoffensive reasons for it as well. For example, one might wish to have a hobby or carry out discussions that, while perfectly legal and safe, might be embarrassing in their social and professional circles. If they are a well-known person or a member of a well-known group, they may seek feedback untainted by the many preconceived ideas people have of their work.
I believe each of these situations are legitimate cases for preserving internet anonymity. It seems to me that most of our current options for easing the disambiguation of lawbreakers’ identities makes it more difficult for legitimate uses of anonymity. Perhaps someone has a better solution out there, but if this is the compromise we have to make, it is no real solution. The unfortunate consequences, while tragic, are not sufficient cause for trying to rid the internet of anonymity, though it really does make you wish people could just be more responsible.