Anonymity is a Privilege Not a Right

A few notes on why I generally don’t respond to anonymous people on twitter or in comments.

Anonymity is a privilege. Words are powerful and if that power is not to be abused it must be accountable.

There are some cases where granting the privilege of anonymity is necessary and warranted. Primarily this is where direct harm would befall someone if he or she were identified as the source of the words. Such is the case with whistleblowers, insiders or someone in a vulnerable position. If these people are identified, they face the immninent threat of losing their jobs, their livlihoods or their well-being. They may face personal attack (physical or legal) for speaking out. They may be breaking corporate confidentiality even though what they expose is in the public interest.

Others need anonymity to be able to voice inconvenient truths, or to simply tell their stories. Women posting about driving without a male overseer in Saudi Arabia, for example, need anonymity to avoid being arrested.

The primary justification for anonymity is provable harm.

There are other occasions where people use anonymity to take on a different persona in order to explore different parts of themselves or simply for fun. I don’t see a problem with this so long as they aren’t hurting anyone.

But the idea that anonymity is a right and not a privilege is wrong. There needs to be good reason to avoid being accountable for what we say or write, particularly if what we say affects other people. Too often online, anonymity is the tool of the bullying coward, a means to avoid responsibility for publishing threats, abuse and lies.

That doesn’t mean writing only anodyne, inoffensive drivel. It does mean having the courage of your convictions and the ability to withstand criticism. If you believe in what you say, put your name behind it. People may disagree with you. That’s fine. But if they launch an anonymous ad hominem attack that is not fine. It reveals a weak argument made by someone who is a coward, a fool and/or a nasty piece of work.

8 Responses to “Anonymity is a Privilege Not a Right”

  1. Josef says:

    Well I have simple advice for people to quote a fellow Washingtonian:

    “I will say very specifically: these are my words. I own them. I stand by them.”
    Greg Anders, Heritage Flight Museum

    It’s a creed I live by. I know you do as well.

  2. Murdo MacLeod says:

    Absolutely spot-on. “Off the record” and anonymity have their places, but too many online commentators hide behind their monikers to write bullying, offensive nonsense.

  3. Simon Stephenson says:

    “But if they launch an anonymous ad hominem attack that is not fine. It reveals a weak argument made by someone who is a coward, a fool and/or a nasty piece of work.”

    Where has this expansion of the understanding of “ad hominem” come from? Until recently, the term was used to describe the fallacy of concluding that an argument can be invalidated by a discrediting of the person making it. As explained here:-

    http://plover.net/~bonds/adhominem.html

  4. I entirely agree. The most common reason for anonymity seems to be cowardice when launching utterly unjustified rants against people for holding different points of view. It is cowardice in the extreme to shout and blather without giving a name – as happened recently to Mary Beard and Philip Hensher.

  5. You make good points, but your examples tell us that anonymity must be treated as a universal right, and never as a privilege:

    - corporate whistleblowers
    - oppressed people fighting for their freedoms
    - people who write unpleasant things online

    You chose to put the last example in bold, but the first two are far more important. Only rights can be universal, and these people must be defended by rights, not privileges. Privileges can be given, or taken away, by somebody in authority. What is the purpose of arguing that whistleblowers and oppressed people must have anonymity so they can fight corrupt authority, whilst also saying their anonymity is a privilege, and hence the gift of authority?

  6. Andy Shore says:

    “The primary justification for anonymity is provable harm.”

    However, that does not mean it is the only justification.

    The internet is awash with louts and bullies. So is society. Some of them do not limit their unpleasantness to the internet. If I state an opinion or a fact and give my real name, I leave myself and my family wide open to anonymous bullying and interference both on line and in the real world.

    It’s all too easy to find oneself being the recipient of vindictive abuse from people who disagree with what one has said politely and without personal offense. A lot of people take strong offense merely because they don’t like what one says.

    Another justification for anonymity is potential harm. Since the potential is real and strong, it is a valid justification.

  7. the_leander says:

    I have to say that I disagree with the suggestion that anonymity is a privilege.

    As Eric Priezkalns points out: “Privileges can be given, or taken away, by somebody in authority.”

    He goes on to point out the problems inherent with the supposed protections when you end up with a corrupt authority.

    The moment you make anonymity a privilege, is the moment anonymity ceases to exist. There will always be those who abuse the system, that is not an excuse to limit rights only to those people we view as legitimate.

    One final thought: Anonymity on the internet is damn near impossible to pull off, most of the people who you appear to be railing against could be found quite easily by anyone with even a basic level of skill and a little time. The way you deal with trolls is not to ignore them, but to put them in the spotlight, by highlighting their own words and using their message against them (which is different from feeding them). Failing that, simply take away their voices. It’s your blog afterall.

    Frankly this blog post reads back as being very poorly thought out, which is a shame given the usually fairly consistent high quality. Pity.

  8. heather says:

    Let me get this straight: You’re arguing against what I’ve written in my book without having read my book? Seriously?

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