Anonymity and the Web

It is rare to use my blog to comment on a contemporary issue.  When it comes to the world of the internet, I am apolitical and pretty apathetic about most of the things that draw the ire of others.  The reason for this has nothing to do with my passion about such things, though I do have to admit most people find me rather passionless (a big surprise to those I am close to.)  It is only I choose to remain a private person in these matters as I do in most things.  That respect for privacy has to do with why I chose to write about one particular issue that has been in the public eye of late, that being our right to privacy itself and the recent banter that anonymity is a form of privacy.

The issue has been spurred on by the government’s collection of our data.  On a personal level I think this smacks against the fourth amendment.  I also don’t know why the public could not have simply been told that data would be collected from us.  It is not as if we are going to stop using Facebook and Google; we are too addicted for that sort of action.  But this is a digression on what I wish to speak of.  What I would like to address is the new found confusion that is making those who wish for online anonymity cry about privacy and pretending to be privacy’s best advocates.  Nothing is further from the truth.

Let’s be clear about one thing and it is at the crux of the matter.  Privacy is not anonymity. Privacy is choosing not to reveal something.  Anonymity is choosing to reveal much or everything (be it warranted or not) but your identity.  Privacy is a vital part of our lives and the internet; anonymity usually is not.

Before I get flak about this, let me say privacy is not always good and anonymity evil.  In life it is rarely a good thing to keep your feelings private and one can hardly say the anonymous donor who drops the gold coins in the Salvation Army bucket is doing something wrong by not telling the world who s/he is.  In most cases, however, the world benefits more from one than the other, this especially being the case when we admit to what anonymity usually is and privacy is not.

Unless it is the desire to hide your benevolence, anonymity is usually fear at best and cowardice at worst.  It is hiding who you are being afraid of repercussion or the cowardice of creating a scene, then sitting back to enjoy the raucous without being found out.  Privacy, on the other hand, is merely the acknowledgement that it is only a select few that need to know much about you.  As such privacy is the hallmark of an introverted personality, whereas anonymity usually takes on the extroversion of needing to be heard.  The private person is content not to share everything about him or herself and those they know with the world; the anonymous person wishes to shout these things out to the world, but do so in a cloak of darkness.  They are content to wallow in another’s discomfort or shame, but not invite the thing on themselves.

Enter the newest battleground on the internet….choosing to engage in something or say whatever you want without being found out.  Now masquerading as privacy is a host of applications that will allow you to hide your IP address and remain anonymous to the online world, or at least as anonymous as you can be.  Those who choose to use these are saying they are choosing to do so for the sake of privacy.  What they are really doing is engaging in online behavior to which they do not wish to attach their name.  (Yes there is the argument for using these services to avoid targeted advertising, but think about it.  We live in a market driven society and chew up bandwidth free of charge, then complain when Google or Facebook, both of which have to cut paychecks to their employees, place ads in our email accounts or newsfeeds.)

Worse than these are those who think cyberspace is a playground and they have to be the schoolyard bully.  These have been around a long time.  They are every person who refuses to reveal an identity before going on a rant.  These are a big mystery to me.  If something upsets someone that much, the least they can do is put their real name out there along with their opinions.  (For the record, this is a big reason why most social media does not allow pseudonyms and why I say kudos to Facebook for standing up to the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.)

In the end, the real problem with anonymity is it ignores what the Internet is at its core, which is a means to share data on an open format.  No one forces somebody to use the internet. A person can choose not to put a photo on Facebook or post a comment to the Tribune website.  That is what privacy is after all…..keeping things to yourself.  If you do choose to limit your audience online there are ample means to do so, without hiding behind a veil of anonymity.  But if you do choose the route of anonymity, that too is your right.  It goes against the grain of a free and open society, which is what the internet is, but no one will stop you.  No one that is, except those who will trace an IP to your pseudonym or the hack who will locate your proxy.  That is the other problem with anonymity.  There is always someone there to turn on the lights.

Image courtesy of Ian Britton at