This article was published on August 14, 2011

Online anonymity: A gateway to freedom or abuse?

Online anonymity: A gateway to freedom or abuse?
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Google+ has sparked many online debates, but the one at the forefront concerns online anonymity. By forcing users to use their real names, Google+ has sprung open a worldwide discussion regarding how this affects activists. Google+ certainly isn’t the first social network to force users to use their full names, with Facebook doing the same long before Google+ ever launched, but the latter has been far more stringent in attempting to enforce the rule.

In what couldn’t possibly have been more awkward timing, Facebook’s Randi Zuckerberg is also reported to have said “I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Regardless of what the intentions behind Mark Zuckerberg’s sister’s statements were, they have been met with severe condemnation. Her statements were also preceded by Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt making similar statements exactly one year ago, saying that online anonymity is dangerous.

The Schmidts and Zuckerbergs of the world see online anonymity as a gateway to cyberbullying, criminal activity and spam, and they are certainly not alone in their way of thinking. Some activists believe that online anonymity is in fact more of a threat than a benefit, with government trolling and credibility among their concerns.

On the other side of the playing field, many journalists and activists cite the obvious risks political dissidents face when using their real names, with imprisonment and torture among the common tactics used by repressive regimes against those who speak out against them.

Two Bahraini activists. Two opinions

On February 14, Bahraini citizens took to the streets in what they dubbed their Day of Rage. Violent clashes left 25 injured and one dead. Since then, the small kingdom of Bahrain witnessed the arrest of over 1,000 opposition supporters in a brutal crackdown, including doctors who had expressed support for the movement.

Mohammed al-Maskati is a Bahraini activist who is vocally outspoken about controversial issues, and uses his real name. His decision wasn’t without its consequences. On March 30, 2011, at 3 am in the morning, masked policeman entered al-Maskati’s home, and arrested him. al-Maskati writes of his detainment:

“After numerous threats, I was arrested and held incommunicado and blindfolded for 8 days before I was released after signing a statement that I will not be talking or writing about Bahrain in any form of media.”

Despite his personal experience, al-Maskati continues to use his real name:

“It did not change my perception of online anonymity. Writing under my real name was a risk I took and I fully realized it’s consequences. I am still writing under my real name, obviously at a much lighter tone.”

Al-Maskati’s decision to use his real name seemed like an obvious one, based on morals, credibility and trust:

“I personally chose to write under my real name primarily because I’m not saying anything that I shouldn’t be saying, you see, when one believes in what they stand for, believes in the legitimacy of their principles there really is nothing to fear. I don’t believe in web anonymity the least. Or at least, not when it comes to web activism, blogging or political opinion writing. Such sensitive and highly debatable issues need a certain level of credibility that is earned over time, which, in my opinion, can never be the same for someone hiding behind a a nickname. Another point is that writing or writing under your real name comes with responsibilities of political correctness, information verification and such. In other words, I know for a fact that my writings will be much bolder and blunt if I wasn’t writing under my name as I know that the responsibility is limited to the nickname and will not extend at any point.”

For all his convictions, al-Maskati writes:

“I do not know if it is the right choice or not, I do not however regret using my real name. I was at one point of time anonymous when I first wrote back in 2005, I soon revealed my personality afterwards.”

Recent impersonations in the form of the Gay Girl from Damascus and trolling don’t concern al-Maskati at all:

“I don’t see impersonating as a serious issue when it comes to electronic activism. With web 2.0 came various electronic features on the social network platforms to verify the integrity of the person behind the web account (like the verified member feature on Twitter), other options would be to check the number of followers/activity of the account is enough to give a reasonable level of confidence that the user is who claim he is. As for trolling, I believe everything comes at a cost and for us who chose to speak out in Bahrain trolling comes last on our list of our worries. But, at the end of the day it only takes 3 clicks to block a user.”

Known only as Abu Ahmed on Twitter, opting for online anonymity was an obvious choice. He told The Next Web:

“At the time I signed up, bloggers (pro-democracy and pro-government) were being arrested and prosecuted. I chose to write with a nickname so that I would keep writing for a longer time.” He quickly found that there was no going back. “Now I find it better to keep anonymous for different reasons. I have already been marked in pro-government websites as a “traitor” I expect to be wanted if the situation gets as bad as it was again.”

Aside from his own safety, he sees other benefits to remaining anonymous:

“I attend gatherings of both political camps and many know my real name, I decided to remain anonymous because of the disassociation it gives me and enables me to discuss ideas rather than discussing my origins or background, most people are more likely to feel free discussing things with me online because they want to talk to someone who isn’t linked to them in real life it’s a bit comforting for many and it helps me in helping them.”

Abu Ahmed is careful to protect his own, as well as others identities. He doesn’t publish any images online without obscuring people’s faces, and doesn’t tweet about events until he’s a safe distance away from the location, or until its over. He explains:

“It makes it harder to authorities to track small events and harder to identify me.” That isn’t the only precaution Abu Ahmed takes to protect his identity, and  “The most important point most make mistakes about is personal data. I suggest no one keeps data on his machine, you can rent an unlimited space server online (or share it with other activists), you can use Google disks and store everything on an email account, even cache can be avoided. I use a live Linux version which is booted from a flash memory and keeps very little data stored. Activists should also cover their online trail, use a program to hide your IP address and encrypt the data transferred. If you are using Twitter choose the option (always use HTTPS) from the profile settings, that should prevent masquerading attacks.” He has one final piece of advice for activists who wish to remain anonymous, “For small countries as Bahrain I suggest keeping your personality vague, don’t write which area you’re from or what you do for living, even small details might lead to you in a small community.”

Abu Ahmed does admit that anonymity can have a direct effect on credibility, but also believes that credibility can be gained over time:

“As a rule I wouldn’t completely trust news from an account that I don’t know its owner, and yes this makes me a less credible source in covering news, but identities don’t matter when discussing ideas or republishing materials (pictures or videos), some anonymous accounts gain credibility within time, others will always be doubtful for me.”

Credibility or safety?

As far as activists are concerned, choosing between credibility and personal safety is one that should be a personal decision. Egyptian activist Tarek Shalaby, one of the many Egyptians who was camped out in Tahrir calling for former president Hosni Mubarak to step down, has already detailed the ways in which Google+ could become an invaluable tool for online political activism. Of course anonymity is a moot point for Shalaby since he tweets under his real name. He writes:

While Facebook was always the tool for discussion with friends and acquaintances, twitter took political activism online to a whole new level. The main reasons include the ability to follow those who bring you relevant updates, the simplicity in tweeting and sharing images straight from your cell phone wherever you are, as well as constant updates when on the ground at the scene.

Now that Google+ combines a bit of both, if it picks up in Egypt and the Arab world, it could be huge.

He explains how Google+ makes it easier to follow information from specific groups of people, such a journalists for example, as well as to create circles on the fly to follow specific events. Shalaby also points to Huddles as a great way for activists to keep in touch, send each other information and warnings. For all of Google+’s tools which can be used by political activists, there are many who will simply stay away because of Google+’s real names policy.

Google+ should not be making the decision in the choice between credibility and safety for activists, but by enforcing this rule, they have effectively made that decision.

Beyond activism

Journalist and Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation,  Jillian C. York, brings her readers attention to a frighteningly long list of people who stand to lose a lot based on Google+’s decision, a list which includes people with long-standing pseudonyms, marginalized and endangered groups, and of course political activists, among others.

While the threat is far more obvious to activists, harassment, discrimination, physical danger and economic harm are all listed as the possible consequences of enforcing a real name policy. According to Geek Feminism, the site on which the list has been published:

“The groups of people who use pseudonyms, or want to use pseudonyms, are not a small minority (some of the classes of people who can benefit from pseudonyms constitute up to 50% of the total population…)”

But what of the other side of the coin? Zuckerberg’s argument against online anonymity was built on the idea of bringing cyberbullying to an end. Trolling, stalking and harassment – these are not risks to be scoffed at, not by any means. The argument for bringing an end to online anonymity can be summed up in one word – accountability. The fact is  we live in a world where employees have lost their jobs over statements made on Facebook. Regardless of whether or not the decision was fair or right, it happens. It happens because once something is out there, you can’t take it back, and even if you attempt to delete it, someone somewhere might have a screenshot, or a cached page could be stored somewhere online.

When using your real name online, you may find yourself thinking two or three times before speaking up. In fact just recently, some Manchester residents involved the looting that swept the city have learned that lesson the hard way.

Those championing a world without online anonymity would no doubt point to this as a perfect example of how a real name policy is the best way for justice to be served. But let’s play a small game, where we swap the GM Police with a police force doing the bidding of a repressive regime, and the man who was arrested for stealing, is instead a man who was arrested for expressing his opinion. Suddenly, online anonymity is looking like the real champion.

By the same logic, governments in the west are concerned about right-wing anonymous bloggers. Until recently, Peter Jensen wrote under the pseudonym Fjordman, and was one of Anders Brevik’s favourite writers. The anonymity which is a tool to be used against repressive regimes is the exact same anonymity used to spread hate speech. And in the wake of Wikileaks cables, and LulzSec and Anonymous hacks, the US government is actively going after online anonymity.

When anonymity brings terror to our doorstep, the knee-jerk reaction is to go after it with a vengeance. It becomes easy to forget that online anonymity is simply not a cut and dry issue which can’t be discussed in black and white terms. There is simply no one-size-fits-all solution, and anyone who argues for or against online anonymity in those terms is not looking at the bigger picture.

It is easy to criticize distant governments, in the Middle East or the Far East, who trace online activity, or even take away the ability to go online at all, because in our minds, we’re on the right side of the argument. We’re on the side of justice and democracy. But when the role of social media and technology in the London riots is called into question, is it really all that different?

One-size-fits all doesn’t exist

In all irony, Randi Zuckerberg’s statements that doing away with online anonymity is a direct hit to cyberbullying, doesn’t take into account the fact that this could just as easily lead to real-life bullying, the kind of which is far more dangerous. We don’t have to look any further than al-Maskati’s arrest, the kind of which is probably happening to someone else as you read this. Accountability and online civility is all good and well, until you’re being dragged out of your home at 3am in the morning by masked policemen. You’re probably thinking, “But he used his real name,” – the difference is that this was his choice.

In our day-to-day lives we are afforded a certain extent of anonymity, and that is a natural part of our lives, and accountability only goes so far. In that case, why should we attempt to enforce absolute accountability online when it doesn’t exist offline?

Doesn’t democracy by its very definition mean that we should have the freedom of choice? So while activists from Libya to Bahrain to Syria choose anonymity as a tool to fight for their own right to democracy, the democratic world is debating the need for that choice. Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

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