The debate around the topic of anonymity online is still actual among users and scholars, and it will inevitably rise up to the governmental level. Anonymity and pseudonymity is a major phenomenon in online social world. The question here is how serious it is, what the role of online communities is at present and should any measures be taken to enforce a law or a system that will take control over it. Here we argue that due to the present time situation and the share of influence of the Internet on the offline world a solution to the anonymity dilemma must be provided in order to take control over the situation without violating the basic human right of privacy.
For this research we used analysis as a method for evaluating existing research data to provide an outlook of the situation, gather statistical data and refer to cases which provide empirical evidence to the arguments. By comparing the two opposing arguments, i.e. online anonymity causes damage (in a broad sense) versus online anonymity adds to the genuine opinion expression and protects users, conclusions have been made on the basis of reasonable evaluation of the ideas on the both sides.
It is also important to note that in this work the terms ‘anonymity’ and ‘pseudonymity’ (the usage of fake identity) are used as ‘anonymity’ while the core essence of the terms is concealing the true identity of a person. We find this reasonable, while the specification of every case would be redundant and insignificant.
Virtual Reality and Perception
The issue of virtual reality is grounded upon the fact that it all really depends on the medium. It has long been accepted that the medium is only a mere renderer of the data, a channel that is above the content of the information transmitted. However, after McLuhan’s renowned statement that the medium is the message this position has to be readdressed. Sundar and Nass (2006) in their study of the conceptualization of media sources state that the receiver inevitably becomes the source of the information (p. 56). Such approach from a point of psychology reinforces the subjectivity of the information interpretation allocating the responsibility for the influence of the information on the receiver. This means that if the receiver-source takes the information acquired from the internet seriously enough (which he does while the study shows that the news from the Internet are rated higher in quality than from other sources (p. 65)), then it can be quite influential on the person in front of a computer/other device connected to the Internet.
From the ontological point of view, the information coming from the impersonal source, like the Internet can be interpreted wrong by the receiver due to the drawbacks of this kind of communication, i.e. via text. Here we can refer to McLuhan again, who in his work “The Guttenberg Galaxy” (1962) proves that text has detached emotion from the word, since the time of mass literature production. Now, since information posted on the internet anonymously can be text (not a perfect way of human communication, since it lack’s gesture, tone of voice, facial expressions etc) it can be interpreted incorrectly, and the responsibility for any damage it might cause is solely on the receiver. It is important to remember as well that any experience in the virtual world (be it social media, games or cinema) is real for the receiver depending on the level of engagement in the media.
Workplace and Anonymity
The recent rise in employment and corporate policies in interest in employee social media profile monitoring gives a ground for discussion of the anonymity dilemma in this sphere as well. This topic contains two aspects: recruitment procedure and communication in the workplace.
A good illustration of how anonymity in the workplace communication systems changes behavior is given by Leshed (2008) - an example of how policy changes in an anonymous forum affected the communication process and its character. The workers could use all the boards in the closed intranet forum anonymously in the beginning. The results of such freedom were spam advertising, sexual allusions and defamations. After anonymity was removed the message activity had dropped to 25% per month, but the frequency of forum access went 20% higher. The level of accountability had risen and the idle talks were eliminated. However, some of the employers felt the level of democracy had fallen and they believed management was wrong about reducing anonymity, which practically lead to the death of the online community.
The case exemplifies how anonymity policy change can affect the workplace – it stirs up the work, but reduces security and trust. Anonymity served as a magnifier exposing true nature of the workers – some asked for advice, others criticized the management. In any case, from our perspective, the management should provide an environment of trust and cooperation, so that employers didn’t have to go anonymous to express what they think.
The other aspect, which is recruitment policy of monitoring prospective employees’ social media profiles, which becomes the case more often, according to Kashmir Hill’s series of articles on Forbes.com (2012), reflecting on the studies concerned with Facebook profiles’ monitoring. In general, employers believe to get more precise information about a person’s professional qualities and intellectual capabilities from a profile on Facebook. This topic has a broad field for polemics about the legal and ethical side of such activities. What interest us here is that the people are recommended to either become as private on Facebook as possible, or filter what they post to look attractive to the employer. On the other hand, it is better to be honest about your identity to avoid misunderstandings and to be able to live up to employer’s expectations. Therefore, this situation can be viewed as an opportunity, but means the anonymity should be reduced which, in its turn, will produce authenticity and will save time for both employers and employees.
Talking about opportunities, criminals also use technologies to stalk their victims. In October 1999 a murder of a young woman from New Hampshire was committed. The murderer had found solid piece of data about the victim and created two websites where he posted her personal information and explained the way he would commit the murder. To do this he used search engines and services any user could have access to (Tavani, 2005, p. 219). Now, the pro-anonymity argument finds support in this case, while it was the accessibility factor that enabled the data gathering. However, it is unreasonable to blame the tool instead of the actor. Such crimes happen all the time, regardless of the method, therefore, trying to protect oneself by withdrawing from the Internet is the same as not walking being afraid to be hit by a car. Hypothetically, the counter-argument for this case could be that if a person disappears it will be easier to track them down via Internet and social media updates.
The Opposing Arguments
Tavani (2005) also gives a fundamental analysis of ethics and the cyberspace reflecting on various approaches to the moral implications. He questions if a new ethical framework for Internet as a social phenomenon is needed. On the one hand, the computer revolution requires an absolutely new set of morals and norms. At present, there exists a policy vacuum and there is no distinct measure between the private and the public information. In the case of the murder discussed above, the victim’s information is considered public, as opposed to intimate. Does this mean that any information uploaded to “the cloud” is no longer protected? Various sites provide their policies in privacy settings, so it is a matter of choice for the user to establish the degree of publicity they want. However, there is no legal direction and the vacuum remains unaltered.
In case the vacuum is addressed from the legal side, the anonymity dilemma will be one of the questions that will arise instantaneously. Firstly, it will regard the companies that demand and possess personal data. Secondly, it will concern the accessibility of the data to the public.
On the opposite side of the barricade, Larsson and Svensson (2010), giving an example of the IPRED implementation in Sweden and the outcomes of legal intrusion in the cyberspace, claim that any kind of attempt to violate social norms accepted by the online community will lead to distrust and opposition. The example they provide is the increase in IP VPN encryption services usage after the IPRED. They also claim that the case is only a dysfunction in a latent stage, therefore we may conclude that further directives might only make the situation worse, so governments should either be careful, or not do anything at all.
At this point the dilemma moves from the ethical layer to the political one. Alexandra Samuel ( 2004, p. 135-139) discussing the “hacktivism” phenomenon describes the two extremes mentioned above. She claims that though both camps refer to hacktivists as either “robin hoods” protecting freedom of speech, or mere criminals generating viruses and undermining networks and servers, the position of the former seems more likely to be something separate. Moreover, this third camp is a producer of tools for hacking with lower usage barriers. This means that they are facilitators of illegal and unethical activities.
From all the above mentioned arguments it is clear that there is more negative to anonymity than positive. The freedom of speech with no accountability cannot be treated respectfully, since the motives of the agent are obscure and cannot even be assumed. Closed local online communities can become a solution to the problem, where they can set up their own policies and agree upon the level of anonymity. Governments might create regulations for private sector (since online services belong to companies) that will refer only to help communities protect themselves, but will not dictate the way they should regulate themselves. It can only bear a recommendation character, which will help online communities be aware of all the arguments for and against anonymity. Since the younger generation of users aged 13-15 years old tend to express relatively low level of anonymous behavior online (Youth IGF Project, 2013, p. 3), it might be relevant to take the virtual world as serious as possible regarding it an opportunity for electronic democracy.