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My grandfather just brought up the topic of requiring all communications on the Internet to be linked to an identity. His logic that all people should be held accountable for their actions is something that I find it difficult to argue against. However, I think there are some really important arguments that support this anonymity as being important.

I tried bringing up rebellion-style situations, like the one demonstrated in the old movie V for Vendetta, which I happened to think of when I contemplated the topic. Anonymity can definitely be powerful in that kind of hero-vs.-bad-government situation, however my grandfather had a fairly good argument against that:

It's like the US gun industry putting out propaganda along the lines of:

Gun Industry:

Vote against this. The government is going to take your guns!

Me:

Why do we need these fully automatic weapons, though?

Gun Industry:

So you can rebel against the government if you ever need to!

It's a groundless argument (since the government has tanks, fighter jets, etc), but I still do think there is a good reason to retain anonymity on the Internet. I just can't think of what it is. What might that reason be?

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    This seems to be off topic as it's not about philosophy.
    – user2953
    Dec 8, 2014 at 16:30
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    I would say it is about political philosophy: the value of authority and responsibility vs options to address the abuse of authority and imposition of excessive reprisal.
    – user9166
    Dec 8, 2014 at 16:37
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    "old movie V for Vendetta" ... Never thought of it as old before, I guess that means I'm getting old... Dec 8, 2014 at 19:14
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    Internet voting is an example where anonymity is required to protect the secrecy of the ballot.
    – user10981
    Dec 10, 2014 at 10:12
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    I cannot flag this to be moved to another site, but I believe that security.SE would be a good place for this discussion.
    – Alpha
    Dec 12, 2014 at 23:07

4 Answers 4

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This isn't really a question about philosophy. It is first a question of just very ordinary privacy, and second a question of freedom.

For ordinary privacy: If a prospective employer finds out that I'm posting on this site, they might think that I'm highly intelligent and well-educated. Or they might think that I'm just weird posting here. And while both conclusions are probably fallacies, it could hurt me. There is no sensible reason why I should have to carry the risk that someone jumps to incorrect conclusions that hurt me because they find out what I'm doing. Maybe my colleagues would laugh if they found out that I have a huge interest in British soap operas of the 1980's. I have every right to make sure that they don't find out. It's none of their business.

For a more serious example, take workplace.stackexchange.com where many people post questions that would cost them their job or would lead to great disadvantages if their identity was found. Would you want to ask for advice how to cope with a bullying boss if your bullying boss would find out that you asked?

The biggest problem is that anything you post will be there forever. Would your grandfather want to be held accountable for every single word that he ever uttered in all his life? With everyone being able to quote only those things that make him look stupid, mean, weird or whatever? I think he wouldn't like that at all.

As far as freedom is concerned, you can't have freedom if you can't express your opinion about powerful people or organisations without fear of being targetted.

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    Philosophy studies both reasoning/arguments and freedom, so this seems to be a good fit for philosophy.
    – Lukas
    Dec 8, 2014 at 9:33
  • But how about .. If you don't want people to find things out about you, then don't publish it online. OR do it on a forum which is password protected. Posting online is seen as the same as publishing (in UK at least) which is why we're seeing people put away for online bullying/threats etc. People should be accountable for their actions (my opinon I guess). Actually: no, it's not my opinon. People ARE accountable for their actions, traceable or not. Dec 8, 2014 at 10:39
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    @user2808054 And those ways incorporate the same form of anonymity most places in the world. Even elsewhere anonymity worked: witness samizdat, or much earlier, Mother Goose. By disowning authorship and eschewing printing presses, or by making the attack into catchy artwork, they could get published informally, just like on Twitter. Why should the technological, international (much easier) version of them not be parallel?
    – user9166
    Dec 8, 2014 at 19:22
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    @user2808054 Right, but lack of legal anonymity did not accomplish the intended purpose. Why back a lame horse? What is gained by attempting to avoid anonymity if it is just going to exist anyway? Is it not better to decide when confusion or fraud is a legitimate risk and require identification only then? Isn't that what we really do in all other media? Anyone can publish anonymously in the U.S. If you want to be accountable (including getting paid) you use a name, if not, then you lose some rights. (BTW, accountable but not traceable -- how does that work, who does the accounting?)
    – user9166
    Dec 9, 2014 at 20:53
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    @user2808054 First, if you intend a comment for me, I will not know unless you mark it. Second I mean accountable in the sense that someone will demand an accounting, there are a continuum of synonyms for obligation, and 'accountable' leans hard toward involving and an explicit explanation and symbolic compensation. I don't count feeling guilty as being accountable. Third honor is for the privileged, an 'honorable rebellion' is just one that those with no power cannot actually take part in, so it excludes those who most need to rebel. Finally, if it is all a sham anyway, why posture?
    – user9166
    Dec 10, 2014 at 20:52
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From a standpoint of political philosophy like the one that originates the American political design, this is an issue of checks and balances.

American politics was self-consciously designed by those whom all previous applicable designs labeled as criminals, not honorable competitors. They were nether estranged nobles claiming a different ordering of the nobility, nor a separate nation with different traditions, nor acting under the auspices of some religion or new religious revelation. Those are the only ways new European nations were allowed to arise before us.

Freedom meant expression of one's loyalty, tradition, or religion. And we claimed independence on the basis of a different notion of freedom, which included the extremist statements incorporated into the Bill of Rights. Part of that definition of freedom is an obligation to resist pointless authority simply for the sake of doing so, as evidenced by the second amendment (to which the OP alludes), and the fourth (re: privacy).

Valuing dissent in this way is a new phenomenon, and something that modern democratic institutions built on 'our' model are to some degree obsessed with. Many modern people feel it is still too fragile a perspective to be questioned deeply. So unless you have a very good argument for restricting autonomy, you don't.

We have gone (in the U.S.) so far as to insist that before you can objectively tell a woman is pregnant without unreasonable search, she should have the right to claim she never was. (This is the winning fourth-amendment argument behind Roe v. Wade. Really.) And, as noted, unless things change drastically there will always be places in the U.S. where you can own automatic weapons without admitting you have them, not because it is logical, but because it is an aspect of our founders' original notion of freedom.

So whether or not you said some random thing in a forum is not something we would bother to question your right to deny.

(Aside: Neither is whether you smoke pot. But I did not claim our notions of privacy weren't selectively blind, just excessively tenacious about certain traditional tensions, including anonymous criticism. In the U.S. the reason Alcohol Prohibition had to be an amendment was that when someone initially proposed the DEA, pretty much in its current form, it was obviously unconstitutional. Then we retracted Prohibition, funded the FDA, and forgot that.)

It would clearly help a lot of people to have at large parts of the Internet that are not anonymous, it would prevent a lot of identity theft, etc. We are converging toward highly moderated spaces, and will eventually want verifiable credentials to cut down on the redundancy of this moderation.

But it is unlikely that the entire network will ever work that way, simply because this is an aspect of its founders' original notion of freedom, those founders coming largely from U.S. academia and the U.S. military.

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You should only be held accountable for your actions when they negatively impact others. What you do on your own time that doesn't have a discernible impact on others is no one else's business.

Anonymity is especially important to journalists, human rights advocates, intelligence operatives, and anyone else doing good things that might be opposed (violently at times). Even the average person benefits from being able to be anonymous, as in the examples of not letting irrelevant personal information affect their dealings with people. Anonymity is a tool, and like any tool it can be abused. The question is whether it's more harm to society than it's worth. Another relevant question though is whether it's even possible to fully eliminate anonymity. I don't believe it is. Attempts to do so will only make it more robust.

Why is it important? It's a basic human right, and history shows rights need to be defended or be lost. The legal system ought to have a policy of permitting things by default, and restrict when a need is shown. Exceptions can be found to either policy for anonymity, but they aren't a good argument for a policy against anonymity. What example would be so bad that a policy against anonymity would be worth the harm it would do by preventing the good works it's used for? When whistle-blowers bring attention to an organization's misdeeds, they benefit from anonymity. When journalists publish this information they can benefit from anonymity. When human rights advocates organize against abuses of human rights, they benefit from anonymity. When a person doesn't want to be tracked, they benefit from anonymity. You get the idea.

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I see two reasons anonymity is important on the internet. They are very different from eachother

The main issue is one of novelty. The internet has dramatically changed how humans interact. Never before have our most causal words been stored for eternity, shared with the world. Our society and its social structures have not fully adapted to this new reality. Anonymity is a powerful tool in the short run to let us explore this new and dangerous realm without catching our self in the wake.

The other is a simple pragmatic issue. The nature of long-distance transmission makes it difficult to positively identify an individual. The internet backbone cannot realistically deal with this, so any identifying behaviors must be layered on top of this. Requiring identification for everything on the internet would be a crippling physical blow.

Over time, I expect laws will evolve which requires identification in some places, and allows identity in others. There are plenty of legal situations where this already happens. Most countries generally allow you to do anything you please within the confines of your own home, but demand social norms in public places. Police in some countries (e.g. USA) are not allowed to demand identification from just anybody, but once you are arrested for an alleged crime, you are now required to identify yourself, or an identity will be given to you by the state.

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