John Nockleby, Why Anonymity?

John Nockleby, Why Anonymity?

Comment by: Katherine Strandburg

PLSC 2011

Workshop draft abstract:

People seek anonymity in a wide variety of contexts. Some desire to remain anonymous for reasons that appear innocuous or even salutary. Those who post anonymous opinions contribute to public dialogue. Avatars permit people to explore different personas in Second Life. Many people desire to walk in public or eat in a restaurant without being identified.  Gays and lesbians fearing ostracism, and others seeking socially-disapproved but harmless outlets for themselves, engage in conduct without fear of outing.  Thus, the ability to remain anonymous carries benefits to individuals as well as to the society.

On the other hand, sometimes anonymity leads to anti-social behavior. The ability to post anonymously online leads some to make defamatory or vicious comments, or to download material otherwise protected under intellectual property law. The ability to conceal one’s identity in public spaces permits criminals to attack others without fear of discovery. Much criminal behavior depends on anonymity (cash transactions to pay underlings; operating through networks of corporate fronts; paying off public officials).  Thus, anonymity has a dark side as well.

As is well-recognized, the digitalization of the world of information, along with the development of new forms of technological surveillance, challenge traditional notions of anonymity and privacy. Some legal commentators propose that law restrain how much these new technologies force people to unveil themselves –whether online or as they live in the natural world. Others assert that anonymity has never been given the same level of legal protection as privacy, and embrace the unmasking technologies.

What do we lose if we embrace these technologies that displace anonymity? Are there virtues of anonymity that we should fear losing? If so, are there ways of protecting some forms of anonymity  while simultaneously forcing visibility on socially harmful behavior?

This essay will examine some of the philosophical and practical issues that underlie these questions.