8 March, 2017
In my previous post, I took a closer look at what anonymity is and posed a few questions to think about as we discuss this topic further. In this post, I want to talk a bit about U.S. cultural assumptions about privacy and anonymity. Then look at what general harm is done when we remove it from online spaces.
The allowances for anonymity/privacy
My friend unwesen linked to an old post of his own on this topic yesterday. The sums up privacy very well: it’s about the psychological need for protection. We all have things we want to keep to ourselves to feel safe. It’s not about hiding bad things, but in reserving parts of ourselves away from the public and only sharing them with those we choose to. And, each person has a different need for protection.
In U.S. culture, we strongly respect an individual’s privacy. Even seemingly public figures such as celebrities still have a legal right to privacy. Just because someone puts themselves into public does not mean that the public gets the full right to whatever they want. The legal system recognizes that, as individuals, people have a legitimate need to keep part of themselves private and sometimes it’s nice to just blend in with the crowd.
And, we see this as individuals. One of the particularly terrible behaviors we’ve seen recently is “doxing”. This is where people collect personal information about a person and post it in an attempt to intimidate the target. Often this is done without nefarious methods, simply collecting up information the person has shared on individual sites and posting it together. The information is out there, but it violates one’s feeling of being protected and makes one feel overly scrutinized and intimidated. Most people recognize this as terrible behavior because it violates our expectations about an individual’s privacy.
Further, some people will want more privacy and anonymity than others. As I said above, victims of abuse are going to want more protection than others. People who are the traditional victims of bigotry, usually minorities, may want to not draw attention to themselves or their minority status online. Finally, someone may simply want to present information without their personal identity influencing the opinion. Or they want to protect themselves from unfair retribution. A woman pointing out sexist practices at a company may not want to see harassment intensified against her.
Finally, we all have different sides to ourselves. When social media games were big, people talked about making multiple accounts to play games. People didn’t want their “normal” friends to know they played games, especially the games that would spam your profile or spam your friends. No matter how good of a worker you are, you may not want your boss to see that you play a Facebook game that could distract you during business hours. We all have different facets of ourselves, and eliminating privacy means those facets would have to merge online.
Yes, it can be abused
Let me say that, yes, anonymity and privacy can be abused for terrible purposes. I’ve been online too long to deny this, to claim it cannot happen. Intentionally or not, some people use anonymity to escape the consequences of their actions. They don’t have to deal with the consequences of their bad behavior and mistreatment of others.
I fell victim to this recently, in fact. I thought I had made a new friend in FFXIV and spent a lot of time talking. Turns out her “friend” she was playing with was her significant other. When the significant other got jealous of our friendship, my friend easily abandoned me and blamed me to make herself look like the victim. Worse, she turned the opinions of some of my other friends I had introduced her to against me. The anonymity of the game meant that she could inflict harm on me and not have to face the consequences. In-game tools let her block me and eventually move to another server entirely to avoid dealing with what she had done.
Despite this relatively fresh pain, I still see online privacy and anonymity as useful tools. It may hurt now, but I’ll bounce back eventually. Despite her using anonymity and privacy to avoid the consequences of her hurtful actions, I know there are others out there who legitimately need these tools to protect themselves online.
The harm in removing privacy and anonymity
So, let’s talk about the real harm we could cause by removing privacy and anonymity from online spaces in the name of making them “safer”. These are harms that affect everyone, not just specific groups like victims of abuse.
The first harm is that it would make people more reserved, and not necessarily in a good way. Sometimes we need to have a frank discussion about a topic, and that means someone may want to argue for an unpopular point of view. Tying such a post to a persistent online identity means that people could be harassed for an unpopular opinion outside the place where that opinion was originally discussed. The more enduring we make an identity, the more your past will come back to haunt you, especially since online stuff may never truly go away.
But, let’s say we do restrict privacy and anonymity. Now we’ve made that a requirement to participate with others online. People who don’t want to make that sacrifice, supposedly in the game of the greater good, are now cut off from much of modern society. As we move more and more of our communication online, we would require more people to give up their privacy and anonymity to keep us safe. But, this opens up people for other types of harassment, such as doxxing and campaigns of intimidation. If all online activity is open to inspection, it makes sense that someone may choose to take your posts from one area as weapons in another. Do you really want your posts about gaming dragged into work conversations?
And, forcing people out into the open is harmful. As I wrote in a previous post about designing for friendship, premature disclosure, particularly unwilling disclosure, can hurt a building friendship. If we force people to disclose part of themselves to others, then we hurt the actual building of friendships! Even if we did create a more polite community, we would be destroying the possibility for people to form strong friendships the same way we form them in the offline world.
Finally, we should all be aware of the harm that big companies can do with your private information. Facebook in particular has made a lot of money in getting people to disclose information to them, then turn around and sell that information to other companies. Facebook was notorious for changing privacy settings and exposing information that people didn’t want exposed, all in the name of profitability. Most people don’t even realize what they are giving up in order to get “free” access to their friends online. And, this is even before we consider the problems of all-too-frequent data breaches.
Next post will be about why it’s essentially useless to remove anonymity and privacy, and impossible to enforce it. Please look forward to it!
This series took a lot of time to write, research, and edit. Consider supporting me on Patreon and give me the freedom to spend more time writing on topics like this. Thanks!