Anonymity can be a good thing.
For instance, I’m a big fan (more so than some of my colleagues) of WikiLeaks, an organization that operates largely on the assumption than certain types of information –- information of public value — will not be revealed unless it is revealed anonymously. Similar assumptions justify the use of shield lawsprotecting anonymous sources used by journalists. Watergate and the travesties of the Nixon administration, for instance, may never have been revealed without the anonymity of “Deep Throat.”
In 1987, I published a study called, in part, “Anonymity is part of the magic.” In that study, I concluded that online anonymity allowed online actors to more fully explore behavior and activities that were oppressed and suppressed offline. That remains true — and, in general, it remains a good thing. But, sometimes, the oppression and suppression of offline behavior and activities have good cause. And the usefulness of anonymity –- particularly online anonymity –- has some important limits.
Significantly, online anonymity is really only a sort of pseudo-anonymity. Internet protocols require both message senders and message receivers to have a unique address — an IP address –- much more easily made public than kept hidden. When courts (and others) have acted to remove the anonymity of bloggers, for instance, this is easily and quickly accomplished. Website administrators seem more than willing (and able) to remove user anonymity when it benefits them to do so –- yet equally willing to preserve an aura of pseudo-anonymity that attracts users when it benefits them to do that.
Also, let’s be clear about distinctions between anonymity and privacy.
Privacy governs the release of information made unintentionally public; anonymity is about controlling information made intentionally public. While online privacy preserves individuality and innovation, online anonymity often simply serves as a means of avoiding public responsibility.
As a strong proponent of open access, open source, and free information, I am somewhat disheartened to see a growing number of online information sites implement strict user registration and comment moderation policies. Yet, I must reluctantly admit that it is probably in their readers’ best interests that they do so. Freedom of speech and information certainly includes the freedom to be loud, graphic, and irrelevant –- but not always at the expense of those who wish to be otherwise.