Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nuance dies when Internet anonymity is debated

If you knew of the Internet before commercial ISPs existed, you were almost certainly connected through a university. The typical (say) pre-1989 Internet user would be a member of a university (therefore known to the systems administrator), connected through a serial terminal to something like a DEC VAX that acted as the university's node.

(I remember the great excitement with which a university systems administrator showed off something to me, in early 1990: he showed a document directory on a computer in America! That demo was all that he was willing to show, since the teeny-tiny 56 Kbps connection to America (I think) was supposed to be doing serious stuff.)

In that kind of environment, and given the fair chance that any Internet user was known to a fair circle of other users … anonymity was at best an ambiguous concept. At that stage, it meant at best “someone too distant from me to know or care who I am”.

As a long-time member of one of Australia's oldest Internet mailing lists, Link at the ANU, I can attest to a lively debate in the 1990s, along these lines: “Is the emerging trend towards anonymity a good or a bad thing?”

It appears that Link's archives don't reach that far back, but one of its members, academic Dr Roger Clarke, considered anonymity to be an active debate in 1996, when he set down this paper:

Anonymity was not something built into the Internet from the start. It was a set of social behaviours that emerged later. And it's always been a topic that aroused opposing opinions for and against.

Right now, anonymity is back on the table, mostly courtesy of abusive campaigns that seek to silence the voices of science, political dissent – and quite often, women. Hence when Julia Baird writes an article like this, she cops insults for pretty much one paragraph:

"Surely much of this could be solved if Twitter insisted people use their real names, as Facebook tries to do. Why allow the violent and cowardly to hide?"

(I disagree with this, by the way, but it's not all she had to say. Nor will I reprise the abuse she copped).

Internet anonymity is a work in progress, people. 

It took years for people to think the Internet was a place where anonymity was possible (the famous “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog” cartoon, in 1993, documented the start of the debate, not its end). In more than 20 years, a consensus hasn't yet been reached.

It's disingenuous to pretend that there ever has been a consensus surrounding Internet anonymity.

It would be nice to have a mature consensus emerge – but that requires debate.

A legitimate component of that debate is: how to deal with chronic abusers of anonymity?

A couple of more points and I'm done.

  1. While not a survey sample, in my timeline, only men took an abusive attitude to Julia Baird. Well done, gents, now go and knock your heads on the table until the dimwit falls out.
  1. In a twenty-paragraph article, Julia mentioned a “real names” policy in one par, near the end. Rising up in a spitting fury over that one detail … well, it suggests to me that you're uncomfortable with dealing with everything else she had to say.
  1. What of the target's freedom of speech? In what way does a general freedom to troll outrank someone's right to publish under their own name?

Today, protesters standing up in their own skin are getting shot in Venezuela; for them, anonymity is moot.

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