Online anonymity: a “necessary evil”?

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Source: http://www.achievement.org

The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future is still so much bigger than the past.” – Tim Berners-Lee

Ever since the birth of what is now a “necessity” than a “nice-to-have” (which it used to be), the Internet, our generations have had to deal with a plethora of new phenomena, in front of a screen of LEDs. Aero planes and super-sonic jets were only fallacies centuries ago. According to some critics, only “fanatics” wrote about such bizarre concepts in their storybooks! In the same manner, one of the best science fiction minds of the century, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, very correctly predicted exactly what we are enjoying today – a world connected by 3 satellites. The WWW (World Wide Web) appeared in the late 1980s as a result of the enormous efforts put in by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the CERN institute.  Over a short span of about 25 years, it has grown to be one of the essential services that the 7 billion population enjoy as of today! Every day, all our web actions leave traces of ourselves and of our way of life through the storing of massive amounts of personal data in databases in the internet and all these information composes our “digital identity”, our representation in the cyber space.

Just as any other technological invention, the WWW has also posed a vast variety of threats to the society as a whole, apart from being our “side-buddy”… We use the Internet (“Internet” and the “WWW” have distinct meanings, but for convenience both terms are interchangeably used here) from getting the definitions of all words we do not know to using the fancy platforms for chatting with our loved ones! However, it is apt to look at a very critical pitfall that this amazing technology has posed to humanity in our contemporary times. It is none other than the notion known as “online anonymity”.

Anonymity is derived from the Greek word anonymia, meaning “without a name”… In the common usage, the term refers to the state of an individual’s personal identity, or personally identifiable information, being publicly unknown. So what exactly is “online anonymity”? It is therefore the opportunity that you have to appear “anonymous” on the net. To give you a brief example, imagine yourself as appearing a “John Doe” on Facebook. Your friends would include a Mark Zuckerburg, a Priscilia Chan, a Bill Gates, probably a Barack Obama and many more! Your work status would probably say that you have “Worked previously at Facebook” and you would have “studied Computer Science at Harvard University”. Now assuming that none of the Sri Lankans reading this would coincide to have actual resemblance to an exceptional personality of this sort, this is definitely a fake profile! Appearing to be such is what “online anonymity” is…

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No one has stopped you from doing this and it has been a customary “in-thing” of most social media users to use funky profile names, bizarre places of work such as the most famous “Crusty Crab” and “Facebook”, which have no resemblance to who you actually are. A more sophisticated version of anonymity is where IP addresses (the identity given to computers connected to the Internet) are concealed. This article will deal with the two extremes of this concept and conclude to find a formidable solution to the problems that are alleged to have been caused as a result of this.

As you may already agree, this freedom that the net gives you cannot be found anywhere else… Where else can you “pretend” to be a professor in law when you’re only a law student still? Where else can you pretend to me married when you actually are in a desperate search for a partner? Where else can you abuse the president of the country in the most obscene vocabulary? An anonymous user with a concealed identity has the power of free speech and can break through the barriers imposed by dictatorships and governments across the world. This has been recently evident in countries like Egypt, Libya and Iran and especially seen during the “Arab Spring”. While these would have brought good or adverse results, the fact that the rational people in these countries had an opportunity to voice their hearts out and not be dead the next day, is due to anonymity. We do not need to go far with this, it is a factually known fact that in Sri Lanka, all the recent elections were conducted “online”… From advertising to canvassing, it was one major social media affair. The concealment of the true identity of Facebook pages and profiles gave the opportunity for users to be free and open when expressing themselves especially in such political contexts. It allows for nuances of truth, clarity and communication that would not otherwise exist.

Another useful benefit enjoyed by anonymous users is that it allows for the discussion of sensitive subjects. Anonymity of the internet allows users to discuss sensitive subjects of the likes of physical abuse, medical conditions and sexual orientation, without worrying about how their actions can affect their day-to-day lives in a potentially harmful or negative way. No one would know who you are if you are using a fake profile and you would not have to go through the trauma and stigmatization that you would have otherwise had to face if you were to inquire about weed, sex or whether it was bad to smoke every day, from your friends!

Next, looking at a more specialized context we turn to special groups of people who might benefit being anonymous online. One obvious group is children (who are of course permitted to use online accounts, but not yet an adult). Children can keep out of potential perpetrators while enjoying the other services of the net. The other relates to people with a “bad record”. People who live a clean life, both offline and online, need not worry about the results of revealing their identity on the web. However, those with a criminal conviction or confidential history have to bother about how the digital world never forgets anything and keeps following them throughout their lives. The web indices and archives allow public viewing of all personal details and life events posted thereon. Under the circumstances, a small mistake conducted at any stage of life can tarnish a person’s online record forever. This can lead to misled judgments in one’s relationships, career and other facets of life. Being anonymous protects users from these concerns. Another group consists of victims of cyber bullying, stalking or spousal abuse. The possibility of being anonymous on the internet allows people to reduce their accessibility and reach. This in turn reduces their vulnerability and visibility towards cyber-crime.

While these perks are surely useful to us, to exercise our right to free speech and expression, it should be noted that this level of freedom has been long abused. As per statistics, it been found that close to 556 million are victims of cybercrimes yearly while 1 in 10 social network users said they had fallen victim to a fake profile on social media platforms at least once. Inevitably, one of the main reasons why the majority of these criminals are not prosecuted is due to the ability for the perpetrators to remain anonymous in the net.

There have been numerous cases where innocent children have fallen prey to pedophiles who have ended up abusing them. In a recent survey of young Internet users aged 10 to 17, one in five reported they had received unwanted sexual solicitations online, ranging from sexually suggestive comments to strangers asking them to meet them in the real world for sex (abc news).

The majority of the bullies / perpetrators do not think what the consequences of their actions would be, before harming others. But the argument is that they would not have committed the bullying had they been forced to use their real names. That would have led them to a fear of being easily identified and it might also have led them to think that the person they were bullying was a real person too, rather than an Internet name. So on the whole it looks to make sense to be who we are, rather than have the ability to hide behind what is essentially a fake identity, adopting extreme right, left, sexist, racist or any other personalities online.

Though a fully-fledged “cybercrime” is yet to be reported, we are all aware that most of the deadliest terrorist attacks and so forth have been precisely planned via online communication. With concepts such as the “IoT – Internet of Everything” coming into existence where all physical items will be connected to the Internet, the threats are only expected to grow.

Another aspect which has taken a high concern in the recent past is the propagation of various anti-social agendas via the excessive use of fake profiles. Organized groups use FB pages and other such facilities to spread provocative statements, hatred, ill-thoughts and even harm which have created a major outbreak in some societies around the world. Within the last year we saw, how in Sri Lanka itself, these were used to create ethnic and religious tensions. Separatist and extremist terrorist groups such as the ISIS also vehemently use social media via anonymous accounts to spread their ill-agendas. While this has become a major threat, it should be noted that due to the excessive use of these, people also have become aware of such concerns over time and are now able of distinguishing the genuine profiles from fake ones.

As we can now analyse, online anonymity is no better than a double edged sword. While it could be used to the ultimate enjoyment of the freedom of expression and free thought encompassed in a democratic society, it has ended up being used for all sorts of heinous crimes on Earth. Therefore let us now consider whether there may be solutions available to minimize or curb the harmful aspects of online anonymity.

One idea proposed is to get the State to “verify” the social accounts and online identities of users via a special symbol which will indicate to the third parties that they are dealing with a verified account holder. This process could be done via linking the SSNs (Social Security Numbers) or in a not-to-techy country like Sri Lanka, using the NIC numbers. The online systems would then have to accommodate these verified accounts in an appropriate way. This does happen to some extent in Twitter and Facebook accounts, where celebrities are given the option to verify their accounts (with a blue tick)… The process should be extended to the general public as well.

Another option is to widen the provisions available for reporting harmful and fake accounts. Already there are mechanisms which cater to this requirement, but these tools are not effective and the victims are not encouraged to report such acts. Also we see instances where this is abused too, where for example, a girl reports his ex-boyfriend’s profile, just to tease him! There should therefore be more efficient methods to extend this policy.

We should also consider the legal implications which have arisen due to anonymity online. As a matter of fact, anonymity has made it extremely tough, or most of the time, even impossible to trace criminals who use online media for criminal acts.

Already laws are in place to protect the right to free speech in almost all countries around the world. It is protected under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well. Many institutions and foundations, such as the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), are working hard to protect the rights of anonymous users.  These organizations have committed many efforts providing financial support to the development and deployment of Internet communications system to preserve anonymous communications, a valid example is the TOR network.

Amidst all these provisions however, it is a question of credibility, as to whether this freedom is present in our society. The classic example is Julian Assange who decided to leak certain confidential information via WikiLeaks. Now obviously this sort of act is illegal, but the question is he is punished today only because he had the guts to reveal his true identity in doing so, not necessarily because the information was leaked as such. He surely had the option of being anonymous, which he chose not to! So the essential moral question at law today is whether we are trying to “protect free speech” or “trying to capture people who overdo it”, or both! It surely is not both as it amounts to a paradox… Hence the practicality of these theoretical laws is a question one must ponder upon in their leisure!

Furthermore, who are we to limit the freedom of the general public? If someone wishes to be online, anonymously or not, so be it! Who has given the State the authority to limit our freedom online? If cybercrimes and so on are a result of anonymity, then we should rather come up with stricter protocols to ensure security than limit a freedom that the public enjoy!

So on a final note of conclusion, as Sir Tim has said (above), we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg in the web that we surf… There is so much more to the top level web and it is expanding day by day at an unbelievable rate. Therefore, with time, whether we like it or not, it would be simply impossible to track people who are anonymous and who are not… There will definitely be systems to overcome the barriers posed by constraints such as these. Therefore our contention should lie in using more “physical” measures to protect the potential victims of anonymous web surfers, while we ensure that the supreme human right of freedom of expression is protected. Anonymity is in fact a “necessary evil” in the face of “practical justice”!

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Sidath Gajanayaka

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