Myth #14: Only criminals want anonymity online.
Myth: Digital communication furthers anonymous communication and being anonymous makes people behave unaccountably and irresponsibly, erodes societal trust and has a deleterious effect on the public discourse. Anonymity is an unfair opportunity to take advantage of others, spread hate or commit crimes. Therefore, it should be outlawed.
Busted: It is often assumed that the rise of networked communication has made the world more anonymous. (#5) This is false or at least needs to be substantially qualified. While computer-mediated communication always works in a somewhat pseudonymous way and it is certainly possible to hide one’s identity vis-à-vis other Internet users in most circumstances, the ability of resourceful actors like states and corporate entities to identify and track users has significantly increased. Digital communications can be held, tracked and analyzed – and the possibilities to re-identify persons have been vastly improved to the detriment of fundamental rights. Staying anonymous in a data-rich environment is something demanding that must be actively sought. The starting point of the argument is, therefore, wrong.
Secondly, anonymity does not only benefit criminals (although they too might make use of anonymization techniques). Anonymity is vital to many different individuals or groups in society. Minorities or political activists are a prime example since they often need a secure space to find and form their identity and debate how to position towards the wider society. (#18) There are also many professional groups in society – think of journalists, therapists, etc. – that are dependent on contexts where anonymity can be safely assumed and actively protected. Finally, individuals themselves may benefit from a societal structure that sets anonymous communication as the default. Anonymity allows citizens to try out different identities (and, thereby, learn about the views of others), to change opinions over time and to speak their mind. Not being observable is an important good in a liberal society – for reasons of privacy as well as democracy. (#17)
Furthermore, anonymity does not in itself trigger bad or irresponsible behaviour. Empirical studies show that there is no clear case to be made that people who communicate anonymously behave worse than people who are knowingly identifiable. Much depends on the context, cultural factors and the inclinations of the actors. Anonymity might also yield a more open and creative behaviour, counter biases or inspire an equal discourse instead of a shallow and conformist reputation management.
Truth: Since identification possibilities are ubiquitous and pervasive, it is no longer enough to just tolerate pseudonymity online. Instead, we have to find ways to ensure that also in the digital constellation anonymity is actively preserved in the sense that at least in certain specified contexts anonymity is legally secured and technologically assisted. A broad, but measured societal discourse on the benefits and risks of anonymous communication is key to achieve this.
Source: Hans Asenbaum, Anonymity and Democracy: Absence as Presence in the Public Sphere, American Political Science Review 112 (2018): 1-14; Gary T. Marx, What’s in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity, The Information Society 15 (1999), 99-112.