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.