Depending on how closely you’ve been paying attention to the internet over the past few years, you may or may not be aware of the war on anonymity online. When the internet was young, anonymity was easy. Peter Steiner of The New Yorker drew a famous cartoon in 1993 remarking on anonymity and the internet:
As the internet has grown and services have become more and more interconnected, we’ve started to shift away from anonymity. Facebook and Google are two prominent drivers of this shift. Both companies like to integrate what you do with other online services for the sake of user experience. By having one account that you can use for multiple services, navigating the internet is more streamlined and seamless. When you’re signed into your Google mail account you can check your email and then easily open up Youtube and start watching videos. In the past you needed to sign in with your separate Youtube account. If you have a Youtube account from the days before Google purchased the company, you might have noticed that Google has been pushing very hard for you to use your real name on Youtube instead of your old Youtube account name. Google wants you to use your real name because it would then be integrated into their competitor to Facebook, Google Plus. Facebook in the current reigning king of integrating services. There is hardly a smart phone application or game out there on the internet now that doesn’t ask if you’d like to link that application with Facebook. Linking with Facebook enables you to easily log in to the application and share your actions with your friends. That’s what linking and integration do: They make things easier.
And that’s how anonymity dies.
You see, the problem is that as you consolidate your online presence, you make it easier to keep track of everything you say and do on the internet. You are more easily identified by those who want to identify you for whatever good or bad reasons. Corporations are not fans of anonymity because it makes it harder for them to present you with targeted advertisements so you’ll buy your products, and because it then makes it harder for you to use their products across multiple platforms. Governments are also opposed to anonymity but for more sinister reasons than wanting to sell you something.
Why would a government be opposed to anonymity? Why would they want to know who says what?
You see, ironically, the only time governments are in favour of transparency and accountability are when it comes to monitoring their own populations. If they don’t know who is responsible for vocalizing dissenting opinions, they can’t pursue that individual and apply pressure (usually in the form of violence or threats of violence, but open to a whole range of ways to make that person’s existence uncomfortable). Without knowing where the source of the speech is coming from, they can’t stop it.
In his 1891 essay The Critic as Artist, Oscar Wilde famously stated: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Those words are as true today as they have ever been. When we can talk without fear of consequences we can say what we truly think. With anonymity we can expose falsehoods and crimes that we might otherwise be unable to expose for fear of retribution to either ourselves or our loved ones. For example, look at Wikileaks and Edward Snowden. One of Wikileaks greatest strengths was in the anonymity it provided people who wanted to expose wrong doings perpetrated by those in power. The revelations made light by Wikileaks have helped out corrupt politicians, expose corporate negligence, and even spur populations to overthrow oppressive regimes. Anonymous and untraceable leaks are extremely dangerous to people in power who use that power to do evil things.
It’s for this reason that the powerful try so hard to destroy organizations like Wikileaks, to discover the source of leaks, and to punish those responsible for exposing their crimes. Look what happened to Chelsea Manning when she was discovered as the source of many of the leaks on atrocities committed by the US in Iraq, including the famous “Collateral Murder” video. She was thrown in solitary confinement and tortured for 1,293 days before having a trial. Afterwards she was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
Conversely, Edward Snowden did not go the anonymity route and decided to publicly state that he was the source of the biggest leaks on government wrong doings in history. The result? He had to flee from his home and is currently living in political limbo while members of his own government call for him to be extrajudicially assassinated. Obama, despite having promised to protect whistle blowers during his presidential campaign in 2008, has used the 1917 espionage act to punish more whistle blowers than any of his predecessors.
The message from Washington is clear: Exposing governmental wrong doings is treason and you will be brutally punished for speaking out. (Cue all the Orwellian sayings like “Truth is treason in the empire of lies.” and “When exposing a crime is treated as a crime, you’re being ruled by criminals.”)
These are perhaps the most visible reasons why anonymity is important, but there is another more subtle reason why it (and privacy in general) is important. A person who is aware that they are being monitored will begin to self-censor what they say. If you know somebody is listening and that you’ll be held accountable for what you say, you’re less likely to speak your mind. Instead you stay quiet, lie, and keep the truth to yourself. When everyone is doing this for the same reason you are, it starts to look like you’re the only person with your dissenting views. It’s almost like the bystander affect: When a group of bystanders witness an accident or a crime, they all expect someone else to do something. Each person is paralysed, expecting another to intervene. When everyone is thinking this, nobody ends up doing anything about the situation.
When everyone is keeping quiet out of fear of retribution, it creates the appearance of acceptance and agreement with whatever it is people actually disagree with. This creates an artificial peer pressure to remain silent. When we do this, when we self-censor for fear of retribution, our oppression is complete. We are doing the work of the oppressors ourselves, like prisoners guarding themselves in prison.
Someone might object to all this anonymity with “Well I enjoy having everything in one place, only having to sign in once, and being able to move seamlessly from one website/application to another. I’m also not doing anything wrong, so what’s the problem.”
“I’m not doing anything wrong” is the most infuriating phrase anyone can utter whenever talking about privacy. Please, for the love of all that is good, stop saying this! If you’re someone who seriously thinks they have “nothing to hide,” you clearly don’t understand how dangerous this line of thinking is and what the long term consequences are.
First off, “I’m doing nothing wrong and have nothing to hide” makes the tacit assumption that privacy (and anonymity) is for people who DO have something to hide and who ARE doing something wrong. It’s not.
Secondly, the fact that you think you are innocent now will not protect you in the future. What everyone forgets is that we now live in a world where governments are recording everything we say and do. We make it extremely easy for them to do this. We tell the government what we think on facebook, who we associate with, what ideas and topics we’re interested in. The NSA records our telephone calls, reads our emails, and collects billions of pieces of data on us daily. They then store this data for use in the future.
This is the key point. Governments keep everything for future use. Just because something you do is not a crime now does not mean it won’t be a crime in the future.
Whenever you do something online (or offline for that mater) you create a point of data. It could be as simple as “liking” something on facebook, writing a blog post, or buying a cup of coffee on the street corner with your debit card. All of these points of data taken together draw a picture of who you are, what you think about things, and what you do. For example, like this painting from Georges-Pierre Seurat:
Here’s the problem: The government collects all these points of data and you’re not in control of how they arrange them. If someone in a position of power decides, for whatever reason, that they don’t like you, they can arrange these dots in any way they want, in order to draw any picture they want, and ruin your life; innocent or not.
“But the government can’t retroactively make something illegal!”
Really? Why not? What’s stopping them? The law? They are the law. People in the government retroactively pardon their friends for crimes committed in the past. Crimes committed by the government are routinely retroactively made legal. Why can’t this process work in reverse? Why not retroactively make things crimes. But lets assume for a moment that we live in a nice fairy-tale land where politicians never lie and the government really does have your freedom and well-being at heart. What’s to stop someone from using your past actions as evidence against you in court?
“Well judge, the defendant clearly has a long history of criminal thought because they “liked” page X on facebook back in March of 2014. That combined with their youtube viewing history and amazon search history clearly establishes a picture of someone who’s a public enemy.”
Anonymity and privacy are important. We’ve been giving up those protections in favor of an easier, more integrated existence. That comfort comes with a price. Unfortunately, people are often short-sighted about big issues. It’s hard to really understand how important something is unless it directly affects your day to day life. By the time an issue becomes grave enough to start affecting you directly, it’s usually to late to fix it.