In Defense of Internet Anonymity

In Techlore Talks #4, Henry and I discussed freedom of speech, anonymity on the internet, and the content moderation policies of online platforms. Certainly these are hot topics in this day and age, precisely because there are no clear-cut answers. In the episode, Henry posed the idea of a theoretical platform on the internet with strict identity verification, an idea which I feel has some merit: Anonymity online is too often abused in the modern day by malicious actors to spread disinformation and hateful ideas while skirting any potential consequences. Free speech is not—and has never been—an unlimited protection to say whatever you want, and if you have ever dealt with a hoard of pathetic, Lord of the Flies-esque social media profiles anonymously throwing insults your way, it’s very easy to see the appeal in a community where ideas are verifiably backed by real people.

Free Speech
xkcd: Free Speech

However, anonymity is still a valuable tool. Its value to society is not derived from its protection of ideas, it’s derived from its protection of people. Social media is consistently used by marginalized groups and people living under oppressive regimes to organize things like protests, and governments are increasingly called out on the international stage by their own citizens organizing themselves and posting information online that their governments might not want shared.

While some hateful people abuse anonymity on the internet to avoid the scrutiny of their peers, countless others rely on it to avoid retribution from the powers that be. A proposal requiring ID verification for social media was actually considered by the United Kingdom in 2021, in which the government rightly found that:

[… R]estricting all users’ right to anonymity, by introducing compulsory user verification for social media, could disproportionately impact users who rely on anonymity to protect their identity. These users include young people exploring their gender or sexual identity, whistleblowers, journalists’ sources and victims of abuse. Introducing a new legal requirement, whereby only verified users can access social media, would force these users to disclose their identity and increase a risk of harm to their personal safety.

Identity verification online is just as much a privilege as anonymity. A system in which an ID is required to participate will create a two-class structure in which the only people able to participate in real online discourse are people whose ideas are acceptable to their state and to their immediate peers. Any dissenting opinions would be relegated to the anonymous outskirts of the internet, if such a place existed at all, further isolating them and their ideas until they eventually disappeared.

At the end of the day, identity verification is not the solution to our collective social media woes. The onus of internet moderation should not fall on people and governments policing each other by tracing each online interaction to its original posters. Rather, social media networks need to recognize the power they have in society, and begin investing in actual moderation efforts which can separate the hate and abuse from everything else while remaining respectful of the privacy of their own users. Without anonymity, the way we use and view the internet would be unrecognizably different, and not for the better. It would be a less inclusive system operating under complete authoritarian control, and a place where content platforms like Facebook and Twitter further monetize your personal data under the guise of fighting abuse.

This post was originally posted on Techlore Dispatch on October 30, 2022.