By Sami Saadaoui
Note from IGMENA: The following post is among the essays written by participants at the end of the Internet Governance Capacity Building Program (IGCBP).
Introduction to anonymity
Anonymity is one of the great gifts of the Internet, and one of its basic principles. It allows people to express their ideas and opinions without fear of being judged. It is an essential tool for free speech and online activism. It responds to the desire of Internet users to protect their personal information and prevent governments, corporations and huge databases of search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing to store and use personal data for political, commercial or any other purposes.
Many Internet users agree that anonymity is useful for discussions on sensitive topics and for online and political activism. It ensures a diversity of viewpoints in cyberspace where there is intimidation and fear of reprisals. For some activists it is the only option for carrying out political actions, specific resistance, dissemination of information, or—for those whose ideas are not tolerated by the regime—simply to exist.
It inevitably leads to many excesses and with those benefits of the online anonymity also come many disadvantages, and many social, cultural and economic issues.
Is anonymity still useful? More and more bloggers and activists prefer to be recognised for the ideas and efforts using their real names rather than pseudonyms.
The controversy and danger of online anonymity
In contrast to the noble face of anonymity, there are unfortunately much darker and reprehensible aspects. Anonymity is truly a double-edged sword. It allows some users to break the law or violate the rights of others, such as defamation, cybercrimes, bullying, propagation of racist or anti-Semitic ideas, involving damage to other individuals or to society as a whole.
The lack of a regulatory framework and judicial boundaries is one of the challenges facing Internet governance experts, and anonymity defenders. This situation weighs on the future of online anonymity and opens the door to many forms of criminal and anti-social behaviour. Criminals and embezzlers can use the anonymity to their advantage, especially in online social networks. Extreme abuse, cyberbullying and illegal or fraudulent activities, abusive and anonymous email posting (spam) are some of the most visible drawbacks to anonymity. Whilst hiding behind the mask of anonymity, criminals are never really confronted by the real consequences of their actions and much of the time, they are blissfully ignorant or they underestimate the damage and the impact of their crimes. And the scourge of those crimes on the Internet is increasing. Statistics for Internet-based crimes, such as hacking, virus writing, credit card fraud, and harassment are increasing. In many cases, the authorities are not able to track the offenders down.
Anonymity, the way forward
It’s clear that the use of on-line anonymity to cause harm should not be tolerated and those responsible for these acts must be prosecuted.
In the current environment of the Internet, there are serious debates on the freedoms of individuals on the Internet and how these freedoms can be protected in the onslaught of people under anonymity.
Curiously, those for and against anonymity seem to have the same positive motivation: protecting the Internet, online activism and freedom. People who support anonymity argue that taking political debate to the highest level of discussion is not possible without anonymity. Those against anonymity argue that anonymity protects criminals.
Opponents also denounce the facilities offered to cybercriminals to satisfy their darkest fantasies. They consider that the freedom given to them is boundless, and this can encourage and facilitate deviant, antisocial behaviour. Furthermore, the spread of false information in the net could ruin the veracity of the Internet as an informational and credible network. For example, in crime-fighting, anonymous sources are not as reliable, sometimes leading to the ruin of innocent people.
Many economists argue that protecting 100% anonymity on the Internet by law would, condemn online commerce and banking since both require prior identifications and authentication of both customers and businesses.
Anonymity has its good side and its bad side. It's protective and it's empowering, but also it’s dangerous. Anonymity can be a useful tool for shy people, for cyber or political activists and for those seeking an escape from their offline personality. At the same time, anonymity can become a channel to facilitate cyberbullying and cybercrimes. I think that in order to reduce the risks of anonymity, Internet providers and social media networks need to reconsider the facilitation of such outright anonymity and implement more protective measures to avoid cybercrimes. I'm all for free speech, privacy, and anonymity, but there has to be some accountability. More so, I hope that I can see this in my country. People should be held accountable for their actions online, even if it is from behind pseudonym.
Finally, only a complete and clear legal framework that defines anonymity and protects users from its risk can build trust within digital networks. This legal framework should declare anonymity as a private and personal right, but a right that could be lifted in exceptional circumstances and under the supervision of a judge, who would be the only one able to verify the propriety of any requests for lifting anonymity.
I still have many unanswered questions in my head. Among them:
Sami Saadaoui is a DiploFoundation alumnus after completing both phases of IGCBP. He has worked for Orange Tunisia as an ISP & telecom operator since 2009. Mr Saadaoui is involved in IG issues with a special focus on infrastructure, technical issues, and cyber security.
How long time we will continue to discuss cybercrime and anonymity? As computers become more and more identifiable will technological advances end online anonymity altogether?
Could this anonymous Internet era be a short-term phenomenon that will soon end?