Thursday, August 30, 2012

Anonymity and abuse: together forever

Trolls and flamers have been with us as long as Internet anonymity. At every step, they’ve provided aid and comfort to those who try to block anonymous communications.

The Internet didn’t always offer anonymity. The demarcation between user and host was deliberate, but not for any lofty “First Amendment” reason. The early Internet was built around computers that supported many users; it was a pragmatic piece of engineering.

Anonymity was something that emerged, grew, was debated – and has always been in danger by the malicious, the evil, the stupid.

Courtesy of Google, I find that the venerable Link e-mail list over at ANU doesn’t record any strong debate about a right to Internet anonymity until 1996.

Let’s grab some rough time periods:

The 1980s: You (mostly) weren’t anonymous

The Internet was mostly academic; you connected as a user at a university. Even in America, the first ISPs emerged late in this decade. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) emerged in 1988. What anonymity existed was confined to the relatively small Internet community.

The 1990s: Emergent anonymity

Most people were “kind of” anonymous as the Internet grew: they were lost in the crowd, and their Internet identities (like their e-mail addresses) didn’t necessarily reflect their “real names”.

IRC became the focus of early anonymity debates. Here’s a paper ( from 1991 which notes that:

“The lack of self-regulation amongst users of IRC can be both positive and negative, as far as interaction is concerned. The safety of anonymity can "reduce self-consciousness and promote intimacy" between people who might not otherwise have had the chance to become close. It can also encourage "flaming" … the gratuitous and uninhibited making of "remarks containing swearing, insults, name calling, and hostile comments."”

Bruce Sterling, in 1992, quoted 1990 newspaper reports about hackers using the “relative anonymity” (my emphasis) of their computers (not, however, absolute anonymity) in his book The Hacker Crackdown.

An early and popular anonymous message relay server was set up in Finland in 1992, for example, as is discussed here.

According to Wikipedia, the cartoon that probably epitomizes anonymity was published – “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog” – came from 1993.

I’ve picked out these highlights to illustrate the emergence of the debate about anonymity. Most people understood that computers were relatively anonymous. What emerged by the second half of the 1990s was a debate pro-versus-anti: “is anonymity a right?”

If anonymity is a right, it only has that status because people worked to make it so – and it’s a right that can be withdrawn or limited by governments, if they’re given a reason.

If you view anonymity as a right, it’s one that took some time to become truly accessible to the ordinary Internet user – and it’s all too easily denied by authorities.

Which is why I regard the kind of people who use anonymous Twitter accounts (registered in seconds, location “The Web”) to abuse and victimize others to be fools.

What’s happened to Charlotte Dawson is the kind of behavior most likely to erode what anonymity that exists.

Few things inspire legislators better than a cause celebre.

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