Online Activists and the Right to Anonymity

5 April, 2015

Anonymity has been a controversial old matter that occurred throughout history. For example,
William Shakespeare is probably a pseudonym, and the real name of this famous author is not known and will probably never be known. Nowadays anonymity is used in relation to the Internet, and the topic of the right of anonymity is still disputatious between critics and defenders. Even though many articles on the internet discuss anonymity as hiding identity or claiming another one, which can be revealed by the ISP (Internet service provider), only few articles discuss it as encrypting the user traffic. Anonymizers are servers that offer an encrypted tunnel between the client and the servers using its software and usually reside outside the country of the user. Personally, I am more interested in anonymity as the term of encrypting user’s traffic, in order to protect them from the surveillance of a despotic government.

Although both critics and defenders have reasonable justifications, I strongly believe that internet users in many cases, especially human rights activists, must have the right to anonymize their identity and specialists must find methods that comply with both sides’ fears. Hence, after going through the reasons why I am with the defenders, I will suggest a solution that may satisfy the two parties.

Anonymity defenders believe that anonymity on the internet has many critical benefits, and they present many strong reasons to consider anonymity as more beneficial. For instance, people, especially human rights reporters and activists in a repressive political regime may use anonymity services that reside in other countries in order to deliver their reports without exposing their safety or even their life to danger. Furthermore, in every society, there are always people who want to argue forbidden ideas, yet in many advanced countries, they may be afraid of revenge from individuals or racists. In addition, in many cultures anonymous consultations to priests, doctors, or lawyers is common, accepted, and legal. Moreover, according to statistics, participation in many kinds of surveys without revealing one’s identity can reflect higher rate of opinions or information disclosure.

From my perspective, anonymity can be used for positive or negative purposes, like the internet itself. Even though I agree with the critics about the importance of using real identity in some cases, I disagree with most of the reasons they present. For example, they claim that people sometimes visit chat sites for serious subjects, then suddenly, get a shock of seeing a naked person on camera in a perverted position. Additionally, meet people who believe in dangerous thoughts and may deceive and set a trap for naive people, circulate and propagandizing dangerous ideas.

Critics claim that, if the authentic identity is used online, such aberrant people will not behave this way and will not promulgate these calls. Moreover, some critics believe that hackers may use it as a cover for various malicious actions, and terrorists to plan their attacks. On the other hand, I believe that instead of prohibiting anonymity for reasons like, people become meaner on chat sites, the better way is to educate children not to go to such sites and not to open stranger’s cameras. Furthermore, the unnamed commentators can help others to better peruse the idea without taking sides with nationality, gender or age. In addition, Hackers are professional enough to find other ways to exploit random people’s computers to attack their victims or spread their virus, so either way they will not be stopped. Regarding the terrorists, are there are any known examples of terrorist attacks to be confirmed that they were planned on the internet?

However, these criminals can prepare their attacks by many other methods, like the old days ciphering technique, but this time using text files instead of paper letters. Although this claim is not a fact, how many terrorist attacks they allege that were organized and prepared on the internet! On the other hand, how many activists have governments in MENA region arrested! There are thousands of examples of people, who died in the darkness of prisons.

Years have passed and this debate continues, and I believe internet engineers may be able to end it by offering technical solutions that can to an acceptable degree satisfy both sides. In this place, I can imagine an initial idea, and it needs IGF (Internet Governance Forum) and maybe other parties to recommend a policy to be produced. This policy is on two levels; First, in democratic countries by having one or more anonymity service providers to sign an agreement with the government, to censorship only specific dangerous contents, and run under the supervision of one of the unbiased UN bodies, like ITU (International Telecommunication Union) or IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force).

The policy allows governments to question the user for any encrypted connection other than to the allowed providers. Additionally, it allows the user to comment anonymously on sites that offer such
facility, and use these provider’s connections to avoid intruders on public WIFI, or even direct surveillance by the local ISP. Secondly, for the MENA region and similar countries, UN bodies must facilitate free anonymity services without any cooperation with local governments. Such procedure may protect lives and help activists to deliver Human rights violation reports safely. The more sensitive the transmitted information is, the more the anonymity is required.

After all the research, I am still inclined to believe that no vital cons of the online anonymity, but only excuses that do not reach the degree of critical causes to forbid it. When it is about opinion, what should matter is the idea not the person behind it.


The Department of Computer Science & Engineering, Washington University
The Department of Computer and Systems Sciences, Stockholm University
Adam N. JOINSON, Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK
International Telecommunication Union
Internet Engineering Task Force

Author: Kinan Alkhatib