In defence of internet anonymity

Image c/o Thomas Hawk.

It recently emerged that Twitter has added the need to register mobile phone numbers as part of the sign-up procedure when creating an account to use the network. The move is, as is always the case, presented as part of their effort to protect those that use the service, particularly from abusive trolls. However, as with all such protections, it only offers protection to a degree and does actually create more danger for others.

For those of us that live in Western ‘liberal’ countries, the requirement to provide a mobile phone number is perhaps not massively problematic. It is fairly easy to obtain a mobile and use it without having an data connected to that phone (if you’ve watched The Wire you’ll know that those that wish to protect themselves from the law will use so-called “burner phones”). Outside of nations like the UK and the US, particularly in authoritarian regimes, there are far more hoops that need to be jumped through and the possibility of obtaining a so-called burner is fairly slim. As The Guardian noted, Turkey requires all mobile phones to be registered and a passport is required to obtain a sim card and mobile number.

The request to provide a mobile number in order to use the service is therefore troubling for those living in authoritarian regimes. As we know, communication tools that provide anonymity have played a role in overturning a variety of authoritarian regimes (although the extent to which these tools have played a role is perhaps overstated). Anonymity in Western liberal states may be perceived as a tool to harass and intimidate individuals, but in less democratic states they are essential for survival and for hope. Without this cover of anonymity, lives can and will be placed at risk. Anonymity maybe a troubling concept from our point of view (not least given the media coverage) but it is essential. When weighing up the social cost, the removal of anonymity will come at a much greater cost than if it was to be maintained.

Trolls are an unpleasant side effect of creating a space where everyone can engage in public discourse. But whilst there is a need to figure out how we tackle this phenomenon, we also have to accept that the internet will probably only ever be an imperfect space and that imperfection is what makes it so valuable. Because so long as there as there is anonymity, there will be trolls. But there will also be opportunities for dissidents to communicate, organise and challenge the status quo. Whilst I would not wish to minimise the harm that trolls cause to individuals (as I’ve stated before, I don’t buy into this current “right to offend” trend), I prefer to think of the positive impact of anonymity. The potential it provides for people to be free. Either free to engage in discourse without fear of reprisal or harm, or to seek to secure freedom from state oppression.

Of course services such as Twitter have to seek to protect those that use the service. But, when it comes to the internet, every measure of protection can also do great harm. This is true of removing the right to anonymity for those who wish to communicate free from fear of reprisal, but also in creating internet filters that prevent people from accessing information. Those filters may provide some benefit in terms of the things that they block, but they will also prevent those who are most vulnerable from accessing the information they need. Such measures are presented as offering protection to individuals (indeed, isn’t this always how states present measures that repress individual freedoms?), when in fact this is only partially the case. Protection for some, insecurity or danger for others.

Ultimately, we must seek to defend the right to remain anonymous online. It is not always comfortable, but then defending our freedoms to the fullest extent will never be entirely comfortable because we understand that there are those that will abuse the freedoms we are advocating. But we have to accept that the benefits of protecting anonymity far outweigh the consequences of removing this protection. Because the consequences of this will not be felt in the middle-class suburbias of the West, but within the communities seeking to throw off the chains of oppression.

Extremism, nudge theory and access to information

Image c/o Albert on Flickr.

What constitutes extremism? Is it espousing views that threaten the lives of fellow citizens? Is it the performance of individual acts of violence? Is it merely holding views that are outside the mainstream? One person’s extremist is, after all, a moderate to others. Extremism is, to some degree, a subjective position. This hasn’t stopped, naturally, the Tory party seeking to define the boundaries of acceptable extremism. Which is, of course, hugely problematic on any number of levels.

Such an approach to extremism could be seen as part of an attempt to ‘nudge’ people to an acceptable (as defined by one party political mindset, with all the dangers that entails) range for public discourse. By defining what is an ‘acceptable extremist’, one is virtually determining the acceptable range of political thought. It is this acceptable range that the Tory party seem to be keen to ‘nudge’ people towards. (‘Nudge’ theory is, of course, a very illiberal perspective, setting out an ‘acceptable norm’ and then developing strategies to push people towards that acceptable norm.)

The theorists behind nudge theory (for more on this, see the end of the post) are certainly untroubled by its use to close down discussion and to water down entirely legitimate, non-mainstream opinion. In a piece on The Atlantic,  Evan Selinger explored the possibility of ‘nudging’ people towards civil engagement online using specialist software. Richard Thaler, one of the architects of ‘nudge’ theory, embraced the concept, tweeting: “A Nudge dream come true”. A dream come true for nudge advocates  perhaps, a nightmare for anyone who opposes any effort to narrow debate to a government approved ‘norm’. With such moves by the government to expand on its definition of terrorism, can we expect such ‘nudges’ in increasing areas of public debate and discussion?

This rush to define extremes has implications in terms of access to information. Information is, after all, a key factor in radicalising individuals. Expect, with such a policy as outlined by Theresa May, that this will come coupled with the shutting down of ‘extremist’ websites, as well as restrictions on public speech. As the terms of what is regarded ‘unacceptable extremism’ are extended, does this mean that literature on the fringes of mainstream thought may be susceptible to pressure to remove by the general public? Will books once considered ‘extremist’ yet ‘harmless’ suddenly be found to be unacceptable and unsuitable for public consumption? What would be the consequences of this shift in public perception of what is ‘extremist’?

Libraries are, of course, hugely important repositories of information. They contain written materials that are purchased free from political prejudice (to an extent, one might argue that the collections reflect a Western liberal, neo-classical economic model, rather than an entirely balanced political outlook – bit we’ve gone over this ground before). The bulwark against any kind of censorship of such materials are professional librarians. Any attempts to influence or control the purchase of collections would, one would hope, be met with stiff resistance by the profession (both individually and through the professional body). Whether such professional opposition would be successful is a different matter. It would not, however, go without being vehemently challenged. What would happen if professional librarians were stripped away and an alternative model for delivering library services was pursued. We may not have to wait long to discover the answer…

We already know that libraries are being hollowed out. Professional stuff are culled and replaced with volunteers (often forced to take on the role of amateur librarian because their council has threatened them to do it or lose the service – blackmail that is laughably painted as local people taking control of their services), libraries are increasingly falling into private hands, or the hands of local groups. What would be the consequence of government encouraging an environment where certain ideas are considered outside of the norm? Would this create a climate in local communities where certain ideas (and therefore resources) are unacceptable? Where a Trust is in place (an alternative that is becoming increasingly popular), would the Trust be able to resist pressure from the local community and stick to the principles of free and open access to information for all?  There is a particular additional problem for charitable trusts – that of being in any way openly political.

In recent years, charities have come under increasing pressure from central government regarding their political activities. Charities have been attacked by such senior political figures as Iain Duncan Smith, Eric Pickles and Chris Grayling. This has been followed by new legislation restricting campaign spending by charities during election periods. A charitable trust would, it appears, be vulnerable to any attempt by government to clamp down on ‘extremist’ (ie non-mainstream political) works that they hold within their collections.

Librarians should be able to resist such pressures (to an extent). So long as the pressure comes from local communities rather than the government (we’re unlikely to see the government calling for outright bans of books, at least it seems unlikely at present), librarians will be in a position to resist. However, information access in libraries isn’t just about books. A shift in what defines extremism (and therefore what is mainstream and ‘acceptable’) would have an impact in terms of internet use and filters employed online. This is where it becomes more difficult for librarians to have any say in ensuring equitable access to information.

This is a problem that will extend beyond public libraries, of course. Academic libraries also have to contend with the issue of internet filtering, often down to arbitrary decisions made with no recourse to the library itself. When what is considered ‘dangerous extremism’ is expanded, there is potential for universities to expand filtering of the internet to prevent dissemination of materials which the state has argued now falls under the definition of extremist. This raises huge questions in terms of access to information for academic study, as well as academic freedom and freedom of expression (something that universities should be at the forefront of, for the good of not just academia, but society in general).

As the government ‘nudges’ individuals towards a predetermined ‘norm’, so we face greater threats in terms of access to information and free expression. As public libraries face de-professionalisation, they become vulnerable to environmental shifts that are hostile to the core ethics of the professional librarian (ie the free and open exchange of information, without prejudice). This nudging towards a norm limits free expression, debate and access to information. The impact of nudging people towards this government approved norm extends beyond public libraries and towards higher education. Cynical efforts to create ‘acceptable’ terms of opinion and public discourse ultimately limits individual freedoms and threatens to restrict our exposure to non-mainstream ideas (with all the dangers that entails). The consequences of government ‘nudging’ us towards what it defines as civil engagement (with apparent due deference to our democratic system) will lead to greater censorship and a restriction on free expression. Not only does this threaten our individual liberties, but it is also a threat to the values that librarians seek to defend and consequently threatens the existence of any meaningful library service.


What is nudge theory? Nudge theory proposes that people can be subtly persuaded to change their behaviour by influencing the choices individuals make. The school cafeteria is an oft used example positing that if healthier food is placed at eye-level, individuals may be more likely to choose that over junk food, even though the junk food is readily available.

Who originated the theory? Nudge theory first came to prominence in the book Nudge, written by the behavioural economist Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, a legal scholar who acted as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama.

Who have they influenced? Both David Cameron and George Osborne are big advocates of nudge theory. Whilst both are believers in the power of ‘nudge’, even they found some ideas proposed by behavioural economists a step too far, particularly in terms of healthcare (a proposal to move away from free healthcare by ‘nudging’ individuals caused even Cameron to re-asses his opinion).

It sounds a little problematic. What do critics say? Critics of ‘nudge’ theory argue that it is somewhat cynical, particularly as nudges can “infantilise individuals by taking away their moral maturity”. A psychologist named Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Centre for Cognition and Adaptive Behaviour at the Max Planck institute in Berlin, has been one of the key (and persistent) critics of ‘nudge’. Gigerenzer argues that rather than manipulating people, they should be taught and given the tools to inform their decisions. Gigerenzer argues that ‘nudge’ theory frames people as “basically hopeless when it comes to understanding risk”. Gigerenzer takes a more optimistic view that provided with the information and the tools to understand it, people will make the ‘right’ choices. I tend to side with Gigerenzer rather than Thaler and Sunstein.

Why are behavioural economists viewed as having a better insight into human behaviour than psychologists? Good question.


Woolwich, surveillance, politics and extremism

I wasn’t going to write a post on this initially. Even at this early stage, there will be a million other blog posts on the topic (a million better written blog posts on the topic). But there are some things I felt I could not ignore or not pass comment on. Sometimes the urge to share a perspective on events is too strong not to ignore, or to bury away for fear of being seen to make political points on the back of what is a very tragic and distressing event. Given that, this may come across as a somewhat confused and stumbling post.

Whilst still coming to terms with an event that has shocked everyone, there are already the familiar rumblings about How This Must Not Happen Again. As is to be expected, the talk of legislation has once more reared its head, in particular the Draft Communications Data Bill has been put forward as a necessary step to ensure such events are prevented. Unsurprisingly, this has been proposed by the usual authoritarian figures, principally John Reid, a man who was and remains a keen believer in invasive state power (and is, incidentally, a spokesman for the security industry in the House of Lords – being a director of security firm G4S).

But, as we know, the Draft Communications Data Bill would have made no discernible difference in this case. Both suspects were, apparently, known to the security services before this terrible event took place. They already had their suspicions about these individuals without the power of the Draft Communications Data Bill, so it is unclear how much difference the powers behind the proposed bill would make in this particular case. Even Eric Pickles, not one I am keen to cast in a positive light in normal circumstances, argued that it would have made no difference whatsoever in this case.

Whenever such an event as this takes place, security measures are proposed that, so the politicians claim, will make the streets safer and prevent such tragedies from happening again. But will they really? Will any legislation prevent two individuals armed with knives from going out onto the streets and butchering someone in broad daylight? No, the problem of violent extremism, no matter how it manifests itself, needs to be tackled at a far deeper level than just through simple, flawed legislation.

Whilst it is impossible to know their true motivations, or the sequence of events that led to their decision to launch such a vicious attack, one does wonder how violent extremism in general can be tackled effectively. I should emphasise here that I am not talking about the incident in Woolwich, but rather the broader issue of extremism and marginalisation. Could it be, perhaps, that our political culture is so limited as to push individuals ever closer to the fringes of both the political spectrum and of society in general? Where factors such as poverty probably have a far greater impact, perhaps the way political discourse is framed in this country is also a contributory factor?

Over the past fifty or sixty years (perhaps more than that), our political system has increasingly crowded around the so-called ‘centre-ground’. Despite what many of the ‘loyalists’ on either side might argue, there is very little difference between the main political parties. They have been broadly united on a number of key issues in the recent past, from the invasion of Afghanistan to the need for ‘austerity’. There is very little room for discussion on the margins of these issues (how often do you hear a mainstream politician argue against ‘austerity’, for example, considering the number of esteemed economists who argue it is a damaging economic policy?). For those who take a reasonable position in opposition to these policies (reject ‘austerity’ or oppose foreign wars, both entirely reasonable positions), where is there to go? Given the majority of the media and the political discourse doesn’t really enable reasonable arguments in opposition to the governing orthodoxy (or at least very rarely), it is perhaps no surprise the people shift to the fringes to look for answers. And when you shift to the fringes, where you feel that no-one is listening or representing you, desperation sets in – the desperation to be heard.

In my entire voting life, I have never voted for the Labour Party. The first time I was able to vote was in 1997 and I chose not to vote Labour, predominantly because I felt Blair was, in essence, a Tory wrapped in a red cloak (a very flimsy red cloak at that). However, whilst I am not pre-disposed to voting for Labour, this doesn’t mean to say I would never have considered voting Labour had I lived in an earlier era. Take the Attlee government of the immediate post-war period. If the Labour Party adopted the kind of platform Attlee’s government occupied, I would be more inclined to vote for them as it is a great deal closer to my position than the current Labour Party (although perhaps still not as close as I would like). But this is no longer the party of Attlee and Bevin, and it is highly unlikely ever to be so again. They have, in essence, conceded the battle fought in the 1980s and have accepted neo-liberal economic positions that are at odds with the views and positions espoused by those at the heart of the Attlee government (even though that government was itself not as radical as many would have liked).

So what is left for me? I cannot conceivably vote for any of the major parties, and I am left with the fringes (or the Greens) and I fear that many others across our society equally feel that their views have been marginalised and that there is no-one expressing their own particular point of view. People feel that there is no-one speaking for them and consequently that they have little option but to look to the fringes for the answers they crave. Whether that be radical preachers in mosques, or racist thugs. This isolation from the mainstream and marginalisation is not an excuse for violence, one does not have to resort to violence to express a perspective that public discourse has pushed to the fringes. But one wonders whether the marginalisation itself would be minimised if public discourse wasn’t constrained within such tight boundaries. If, for example, it was seen as reasonable to argue that ‘austerity’ is built on a false premise or that the wars in the Middle East are immoral, perhaps those that hold those reasonable views would not feel so marginalised and consequently pushed to the extremes.

Throughout history, a clustering around the centre-ground has resulted in people being pushed to the extremes in ever-increasing numbers. Where the answers provided by the centre seem inadequate, people begin to look elsewhere for answers. Perhaps we should pause for a minute and ponder whether it is healthy for our society to have otherwise reasonable and sensible positions (moral and political) pushed to the margins. Perhaps, and this seems incredibly naive I accept, perhaps our political debate should be more mature, accepting that there are reasonable views outside the orthodoxy. Of course, broadening public discourse would in no way be a panacea in terms of dealing with extremism or marginalisation but perhaps providing that room for alternative voices in the public debate would be a step towards dealing with the problem

As I said at the beginning, these are at present rather confused and incomplete thoughts. There is no doubt that the murder in Woolwich was a deeply shocking and tragic event. I am not convinced, however, that any amount of legislation or ‘snooping’ will prevent such despicable acts from happening again in the future. The only thing I am sure of is that we need to look at our society, our political culture and our public discourse and see if we can find some answers. We certainly should not look to John Reid and his authoritarian acolytes.