The Case for Getting Rid of Anonymity on the Internet
The Internet would be a better place if anonymity didn’t exist
A few days ago, Mike Huckabee posted a controversial tweet calling for an end to anonymity on Twitter:
Most of the comments seemed to heavily disagree with him and almost every comment could essentially be boiled down to something like, “What about cancel culture? People wouldn’t be free to say what they think if they had to attach their name to it,” or “EVER HEARD OF THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, BRO? Totally anonymous!” It’s worth noting that the tradition of anonymity in the United States didn’t start and end with the Federalist Papers either. People like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine created important anonymous pamphlets. We also can’t forget that in some nations outside of the United States (at least for now), criticism of the government under your own name can be dangerous. We could even point to places today where the lack of anonymity has been a problem. For example, I had a friend who got a DWI a while back and had her name and mugshot come up on multiple websites. Of course, they told her they’d be willing to take that down… for a fee. To their credit, which is something I rarely say about Google, they helped destroy that business model by causing those mugshot sites to be buried in the search rankings.
Although I agree with Mike Huckabee and would go much further (I’d like to see an end of anonymity) on the Internet, I think those are all valid points.
The thing is, in modern American society, we have this Manichean tendency to boil everything down to two diametrically opposed viewpoints. Everything is black or white, purely good, or totally evil with no shades of grey. When you’re talking about something like anonymity on the Internet, there are big pluses and minuses on both sides and very smart people can genuinely disagree about whether it’s a good idea or not.
It’s also worth noting that since “anonymity” has been the default setting for most of the Internet since the beginning, people tend to be hyperaware of both the potential benefits of anonymity and the potential downsides of removing it without a reciprocal understanding of the benefits of getting rid of anonymity Internet-wide. In fact, today, it’s not even technologically possible to end anonymity across the Internet in a meaningful way. Even places like Facebook, which supposedly only allow real people to post, are overrun with fake accounts. Literally every day, I get attractive “single women” with minimal posts and friends from Africa / South America / the Middle East adding me as a “friend.” Do you think this is a real human being? Hell, no.
It’s also worth noting as someone who used to work for an Internet wholesaler, that if the FBI is willing to put in the time, effort, and court orders needed to find out who you are, they can usually pull it off. Granted, there are people that work for foreign governments and ultra-elite hackers who can hide from even the government, but don’t think that just because you have a VPN, you’re bulletproof.
All that being said, in the future, in the WEB3 world, it is at least possible that we could see an Internet where you could have one identity across the entire Internet. Chances are, even then, certain websites would structure themselves in a way that you could hide who you are inside of their application, but for the purposes of our discussion, let’s not do that. Let’s assume that you have one identity that stretches everywhere across the Internet. If you made a comment in any forum, any social media website, Wikipedia, etc., it would be under YOUR NAME. Let’s just take anonymity COMPLETELY out of the picture.
What would that mean? Most people could certainly give you the negatives about it that are listed above, but what would the positives be?
Well, for one thing, if we could genuinely end anonymity across the Internet, it would nearly put an end to most hacking not done by governments. Botnets and foreign intelligence agents deliberately trying to create acrimony and chaos online would go away. Online child porn? Not anymore. Scams? It wouldn’t put an end to them, but again, you’d probably see an enormous drop-off. The same goes for spamming. Imagine being able to look up and write the guy sending you spam at HIS PERSONAL EMAIL ADDRESS. Online porn? It probably wouldn’t go away, but my guess is you’d see a huge drop-off in people looking at those websites because they would be terrified it might somehow be associated with their real names. The same goes for a lot of the extremely weird and strange groups people participate in on the Internet. How many people would participate in furry forums or advocate killing the police if they knew everyone would know their real names?
All of that sounds good, right? But, what about political speech?
Well, first of all, like pornography, “anonymous speech” has changed dramatically over time. At one time, porn was crude sketches or carved into pottery. Even when it became magazines like Playboy and Hustler and movies, it typically required you to make the humiliating journey to a counter at a convenience store or sex shop, where you had to walk up to a real human being with a few sketchy mags. Today, because of online porn sites, it’s a completely different world. Even many (maybe even most male) teenagers have experienced what John Mayer was talking about when he said, “there have probably been days when I saw 300 vaginas before I got out of bed.” It’s just a completely different world.
The same thing goes for speech. People talk about the Federalist Papers a lot, but they were written in 1787-1788 and are considered classics today in large part because we now know who wrote them. If people didn’t know that Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison were the authors, most people talking about how important they are today would have never heard of them at all.
Let me also add, that there’s another big difference between free speech back then and free speech today. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you a story about a neighbor I once had. He wrote a book about politics and gave me one of the copies. I’m not actually sure it was ever in a store and if it was, it couldn’t have possibly sold many copies because it wasn’t good. It wasn’t well-written and quite frankly, for the most part, I didn’t think he knew what he was talking about. It was like a grab bag of poorly thought-out ideas that he had, none of which had a firm underpinning in culture, history, or economics. Of course, I didn’t tell him that because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but in all fairness, I did at least respect the fact that he took the time to write a book. That took thought. It took effort. There’s something to be said for that.
There’s not much to be said for sitting in your mom’s basement and tweeting out dozens of snarky comments at people every day. “F you, Nazi!” “You’re ugly!” “That’s stupid and everyone knows that’s idiotic!” Percentage-wise, this is what most people use anonymity for these days. Without question, there are certainly people who use their anonymity to add a great amount of value to the world, but how many of them are there compared to the sea of online idiots? One for every thousand? One out of every fifty thousand? The majority of people commenting on the Internet aren’t doing much other than saying some variation of, “My tribe good! Other tribe bad!” or “I like that or hate that because I just do!” When you go from “people” to “anonymous people,” the number of worthwhile comments dwindles dramatically from there.
Are there people who would legitimately lose their jobs if they were caught saying what they think online? Absolutely, they do exist. However, it’s a dual-edged sword because if online anonymity had never existed, their jobs would have likely never been in jeopardy in the first place. If people could actually SEE the people that were complaining and the reality was, “It looks like there are thousands of people, but actually there are only about one hundred of them using multiple accounts. Plus, most of them look like weirdos and they don’t even live in the same state that our business is in,” would cancel culture be a thing? The whole cancel culture phenomenon is driven by paper tigers. It’s small numbers of strange, unhappy people who appear much larger than they are because anonymity lets them pretend to be armies that don’t exist.
That being said, getting rid of anonymity wouldn’t immediately put an end to cancel culture. However, even if it’s not sufficient, it probably is a necessary step – if only to make the people complaining put a little skin in the game. If someone would have to reveal their name while persecuting people instead of hiding behind forty anonymous accounts, you’d see more reluctance to behave badly because yes, they could have blowback, too. Are there people using their real names to behave badly today? Yes, but how many of them are doing it because they falsely believe thousands of people are supporting their efforts online when many of those “likes” and “retweets” are actually bots and multiple accounts? It’s no coincidence that people are much better behaved in the real world than they are online. Some of that is because having your nose within punching distance of someone’s fist tends to focus your mind, but it’s also because almost everyone is a much bigger jerk when they’re anonymous. That’s just human nature.
If you’re someone who loves being anonymous on the Internet, this probably isn’t going to change your mind, but if that’s not you, then at least consider the idea that over the long term, the best way to fix the poisonous culture on the Internet that is doing so much damage to our society is to get rid of anonymity. Fix that problem and so many other problems would eventually go away. If we’re being forced to live in a swamp, do we want to try to make it slightly more pleasant or do we want to drain the swamp and build on dry land? I’d say the latter way makes a lot more sense.