| Abstract |
Anonymity is not a new concept and certainly not something that arose with the invention of the Internet. Pseudonyms have been used by countless individuals throughout history to disguise their true identities and escape the scrutiny of others based on their true selves. Whether to escape; the constraints of social status, gender roles, expectations that come with positions of authority, or the consequences of the law; people sort out anonymity because it freed them from the social limitations that plagued their ‘real’ lives. These days it is much harder to remain anonymous. The extent of social infrastructure and governmental regulation (such as citizenship) in conjunction with records kept by financial institutions, make it difficult to be identity-less in modern society. The Internet is a rare facilitator of anonymity due to its ability to separate the consciousness from physical reality and has thus generated much contention on the World Wide Web. This paper argues against the notion of Internet transparency amid increasing social pressure implemented by traditional institutions of power; and gives evidence to support anonymity, and by extension, the Internet’s rare ability to empower individuals’ basic human rights.
Online anonymity is a powerful means of delivering information and to a large degree removes the consequences that plague ‘real’ life; as a result of this delayed responsibility the list of ways this freedom is abused grows exponentially every day. However, users should not relinquish their freedom to shield their identities without a fight. Anonymity is defined as “the state or quality of being anonymous”, to be “unknown or unacknowledged” but it is “not something which was invented with the Internet” (Palme & Berglund, 2002). The use of anonymity and pseudonyms dates back ‘throughout history, the most famous examples of which include William Shakespeare, Marc Twain and Ed McBain’(Palme & Berglund, 2002). The real names of some of these authors are known, others might never be uncovered; but each sought out anonymity for different reasons. The use of pseudonyms or anonymity is an effective means of removing ‘preconceptions of the author from a message’ (Palme & Berglund, 2002) , exercising control over perceptions of that intended message and removing the ‘real’ identity (context) which might confuse or warp that which is communicated. It can also be used to dodge responsibility and hence consequences that might be applied to the material that is discussed and/or displayed. The following paper will examine how identity plays a major role in computer-mediated communication and argue that Internet users should not relinquish their right to remain anonymous amid pressure from external institutions and media authorities for complete online transparency. Users should be able to choose whether they shield themselves from potential persecutors by becoming anonymous online. After discussing some popular methods of anonymity such as the use of virtual private networks and the performative aspects of the construction of self on the Internet; the following paper will analyse the notion of ‘real-name’ identity use on the Internet amongst changing social attitudes and increasing efforts of governmental bodies to authenticate, verify and define the sharing of information as transactions. In conjunction, this paper focuses on the ideals of the World Wide Web, examines the role of online anonymity in social change and argues that though there is strong evidence to suggest that anonymity may be the death of collective intelligence, perceptions of anonymity encourage rare incidents of unfiltered discourse that society cannot stand to lose.
The Role of Identity
Identity plays a major role in the perceived value of information (social capital) on the Internet. The advent of phenomena such as the “instant expert” has exacerbated the need for the validation of knowledge through evidence of expertise via identity and disclosure. This is largely attributed to lowered barriers of entry on to the World Wide Web through platforms like social networking sites and hosted blogging communities which provide profiles and pages for users to share their thoughts and opinions on; discontinuing everyday people’s need for extensive understanding of Web infrastructure and hyper-textual media language. The rise of participatory culture and self publishing via Web tools therefore has contributed to a ‘mass devaluation of Web based information’ (Retzer, 2005). Simply put; anybody can have a web page or get a book published, these forms of media are so readily available that they no longer hold the same significance. As a result, there is extensive noise to contest with on the Internet. It is hard to discern a valid source of information from the millions of misinformed and biased messages being posted and uploaded all over the Web; thus identity becomes a significant determinant of social capital.
According to Don Slater’s appraisal of relationships and identity online, it is the basic characteristics of new media that centralise identity’s importance on the Internet; because it is ‘virtual, defies traditional spatiality, and dis-embeds and disembodies individuals from reality’(2002). Users are separated from their physical self, disconnected from geographical location and time, and are able to interact despite diaspora. It is this detachment from the physical self that warrants the ‘performative aspect of an individual’s online identity’ (Pearson, 2009) and makes computer-mediated communication vulnerable to manipulation and deception. It is in recognising this potential for deception and manipulation that citizens of the Internet begin to question whom they are interacting with and what their motivations are for doing so.
Mistrust & Online Communities
By examining what Judith Donath describes as the patterns of social categories that shape our perceptions of others, it is clear that there are multiple methods of deception whereby Internet user’s preconceptions can be manipulated. For the purposes of this paper it is essential to examine specific incidences of identity concealment and identity management in online communities and social networks; one such example is the use of kill-files in online news groups as observed by Judith Donath in a study of identity and deception. ‘Kill-files’ are a commonly used tool implemented to filter web-content and set parameters that allow user’s to flag and ‘circumvent unwanted postings’(Donath, 1999) for example; adding a fellow user’s screen-name to your kill-file ‘prevents you from having to see any more of their postings’(Donath, 1999). In this example, Donath describes how an individual was unable to successfully block material from a fellow news group user because said user was ‘in control of multiple aliases’, pseudonyms that disguised their posts (1999). At the same time, this also exemplifies how even under different screen names the offending user was identified by other participants due to the nature of content that was posted; recognising common ‘voice and language patterns’(Donath, 1999). Even though the ‘real’ life identity of this user is not linked to their activities online because they have shielded themselves with the use of pseudonyms and data encrypting software, they are not totally without identity; they are still designated a troll. This case study is a key example of how pre-conceptions can form in the minds of others over time and how accumulated behaviour patterns can be used to categorise individuals. This example also argues for the power of anonymity and pseudonymity in online news groups; defying preconceptions tied to an identifying user-name or real name. Unfortunately, as incidences of deception become commonplace and gain attention from the media; from impersonation, to identity theft and defamation cases; wide spread issues of trust manifest in the psyche of Internet-mediated communities.
In recognition of; the many uses and misuses of identity manipulation in online communities, in conjunction with “the growth in use and power of personal computers…”(Sommer); forensics has had to develop a keener sense of how users are able to circumvent being identified and traced by authorities in order to commit offences (sometimes criminal) over the Internet. The use of distributed processing and ‘growth of networks both private and globally public have contributed to the issue largely because they impact not only on what computers can deliver to their owners but massively complicate the search for and nature of evidence that may be found within them’(Sommer). Online crime is often committed with the use of anonymity as it is an effective means of protecting one’s self from the consequences of the law and may be used to disguise digital footprints. Many different crimes such as ‘slander, the distribution of child pornography, threats, racial agitation, fraud and intentional acts of damage such as distributing computer viruses are to varying degrees punishable by law’(Sommer). Collecting substantial evidence to convict those involved is however, more difficult than it seems. Even in an place like the Internet “where everything is indexed, archived and often publicly available”(Masters, 2011) it can be difficult if not impossible to track down technology-savvy miscreants. If successfully located, prosecution is made even more complex due to a lack of internationally-federated illegal acts; that is, the law varies from country to country. Therefore, existing Internet Law often fails to capture those outside the jurisdiction of the prosecution. The ugly side of online anonymity rears its head when criminals alike have access to diverse methods of avoiding identification and networks filled with other criminals at their disposal.
The Pursuit of Anonymity
Virtual private networks (VPNs) such as The Onion Router (TOR) are commonly used to browse and distribute material whilst ‘preventing others from watching the individual’s Internet connection and learning what sites are frequented as well as the physical location of the individual’ (“The tor project,” 2012). The Tor Project is just one example of an anonymity based community helping its members remain anonymous on the Internet. This openly licensed software works with existing applications such as “web browsers, instant messaging clients, remote logins, and other applications based on the TCP protocol by distributing processing over a large anonymous shared network’ (“The tor project”, 2012). This method makes it difficult to trace to one machine and hence an individual user. Thus, as a result of the pervasiveness of crime and mistrust on the Internet; anonymity has come under much scrutiny via media bodies and government agencies that would seek to remove it entirely. The advent of Facebook and its real-name profile policy, in conjunction with South Korea’s real-name internet law; demonstrates a social shift towards identity disclosure and online transparency. However, a privacy paradox emerges where; in an attempt to lower the risk of being deceived or misrepresented, citizens of the Internet (netizens) reveal more about their off-line self and expose their identities to potentially unlimited threats and consequences. The idea behind these policies is ‘ if you have nothing to hide then you won’t mind sharing it’ and challenges netizens to address the scope of potential representations of themselves by removing space for error and misrepresentation, meanwhile removing their privacy. This level of disclosure often results in heightened vulnerability rather than strength against the myriad of disguised agendas of media institutions and governmental authorities; advertisers and third parties often after power and financial gain.
Internet Transparency vs Social change
Changing attitudes towards disclosure along with increasing efforts of media and governmental institutions to authenticate, verify and define the sharing of information as ‘transactions’ has made anonymity much harder to accomplish and maintain. Though there is evidence to suggest online anonymity is abused by selected individuals there are many positive potential uses that empower individuals and remove obstacles to social change. In a TED hosted conference Christopher Poole, founder of the controversial, uncensored online image-board 4chan, spoke of the rare ability of online anonymity to un-inhibit users and encourage un-repressed discussion of socio-cultural issues. A rare facilitator of what Poole calls “unfiltered discourse”(Poole, 2010), anonymity is often viewed as a sort of counteraction for the consequences that plagues face-to-face communication. This is often attributed back to the sense of ‘detachment from off-line context’ that users may experience when they go online and ‘grounds claims for the Internet as a vehicle for social liberation and facilitator of group efforts’ (Slater, 2002).
“With the anonymous system, you can’t single out users, it’s very honest because obviously if you don’t have a reputation to tarnish, if you don’t have a name that’s linked to what you’re saying, then you can really say whatever you want. And the most important thing about it is because all information is treated equally, you are judged not by who you are, but by what you are saying which is the way it should be”(Poole, 2010).
By examining this concept in the context of internet dissidents, protest and political activism in communist China it can be implied that Internet users living in a politically repressed society can benefit from anonymity in order to avoid persecution for their political opinions. Examples of brutality like; the massacre that took place in Tiananmen Square on June 4th 1989 (initiated by the Chinese military to crush democratic protest efforts) and the political minefield surrounding the imprisonment of human rights activist and Nobel Prize Winner Professor Liu Xiaobo, make obvious the reasons online anonymity is an attractive mode for political discourse. It is important to note that ‘even in democratic countries, some people claim, rightly or wrongly, that certain political opinions are persecuted’ (Palme & Berglund, 2002) and that anonymity empowers all types of people’s basic human rights to freedom of expression. VPNs are not just for those with ill intentions, and aid participants of political pressure groups to remain identity-less in spite of those who would seek to silence their protests. Therefore, on the basis of positive social change; this paper argues that anonymity is a crucial aspect of internet-mediated communication and should not be relinquished because it presents a rare opportunity to empower basic human rights to freedom of expression.
In conclusion, this paper has discussed the devaluation of Internet based communication and the role of identity as an important influence on what is perceived as social capital; it has outlined the ways in which Internet-mediated communication un-embeds and disembodies individuals from their off-line selves; and grounds the concept of performative identity in online communities. This paper has also addressed the increasing technical challenges of securing and maintaining anonymity on the Internet and has questioned the effects of real-name internet laws on the existing privacy paradox. Through an examination of communities such as news groups and political activists in China this paper has provided insight into the ways in which anonymity and pseudonymity are utilised to avoid persecution and manipulate preconceptions of identity in order to deceive and misdirect others. Lastly, this paper has drawn on these examples to generate an evaluation of anonymity’s significance as a facilitator of unfiltered discourse and successfully argues that though often misaligned with the principle ideals that the World Wide Web was founded on, the use of online anonymity is a rare and powerful tool that has such infinite potential for learning about and understanding the facets of society that would otherwise be ignored. Online anonymity perpetuates social justice and gives hope to those who are otherwise disempowered by authoritative bodies of control and oppressive institutions that operate in the physical world; it has the capacity to level the playing field and extends the reach of democracy.
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