by Ethics Newsline editor Carl Hausman
One of the most popular cartoons in the storied history of the New Yorker — depicting two canines sitting before a computer and praising the benefits of online anonymity — became a symbol of the liberating effects of donning an online cloak when it was published in the mid 1990s.
True: Anonymity offers a constellation of benefits both societal and practical.
For starters, it’s the latest in a long line of social lubricants. Masquerade balls, for example, became popular in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance as a means of lowering social barriers. Elaborate court etiquette didn’t apply, dancers could mix and flirt without violating court protocol, and even the most shy and reticent could find relief from their inhibitions.
Chat rooms and online dating sites are pretty much a high-tech reincarnation of that premise, easing initial contact and minimizing the sting of personal rejection.
Second, anonymity has a profoundly egalitarian heritage. Mechanisms of communication always have been among the first targets of tyranny since media existed. The Gutenberg Press, for example, sparked not only a revolution in the sharing of ideas and the standardization of language, but also a new obsession for identifying — occasionally torturing and murdering — the instigators of dissent. In Europe, and later in colonial America, strict licensing on the new printing press was imposed, accompanied by draconian and frequently gruesome retribution against those who used it as an instrument of protest.
Rebellious American Revolutionary intellectuals such as Thomas Paine published anonymous works, including the incendiary pamphlet Common Sense, with profound effect.
Lesser-known (at least in the United States) examples of the liberating power of anonymity persisted throughout many intellectual rebellions. In the Soviet Union of the 1950s and ’60s, the practice of Samizdat, which translates to “self-publishing,” allowed circulation of the works of dissident authors such as Boris Pasternak and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — writers who raised consciousness about the existence of the gulag and repression of religion.
So seriously did the Soviet Union take the threat of anonymous dissent that it required the licensing of typewriters, with the KGB retaining data on the individual typefaces of each machine so that anyone retyping works of protest could be tracked down and punished.
China, no fan of political dissent, currently requires internet users to register with local police departments, and the government frequently compels internet service providers to turn over the physical locations (generally easily traceable) of computer users who post messages of protest.
Without question, these modern incarnations of anonymous mass communication have propelled liberation in many parts of the world. Recent manifestations include nascent democracy in Myanmar/Burma, greater international awareness of human rights in China, and the domino effect of Arab Spring revolutions.
At the same time, anonymity has an ethical dark side.
It frees the commenter from responsibility for the comment both in terms of truth and motive. Anonymity on the internet produces the same freedom to harass as the telephone once offered the crank-caller in the days before caller ID. But now the scale of the potential damage is magnified far beyond the one-on-one trauma of heavy breathing or requests to check if one’s refrigerator is running.
Anonymous harassment, as well as harassment committed under a false identity, have become a modern technological scourge — bullying on digital steroids.
And anonymous postings on news organizations’ websites — once lauded as conduits for tips and expression that could revive the grand tradition of the Revolutionary pamphleteers — have become both a nuisance and a nightmare for the news industry.
Publications increasingly are banning the practice altogether, not only in response to the worthless vile and inane dreck that’s disgorged, but also because anonymous comments are used as tools for propaganda, spam, self-promotion, and vilification of political or ideological opponents. They also put the publications in legal jeopardy from lawsuits and subpoenas from those who feel they have been defamed and demand the identity of the poster.
Some news sites now require users to register with a traceable name, even though they may post anonymously. Others have developed tiered systems where those who attach names to their comments receive more prominent placement. Others have dumped the anonymous comment box altogether.
Still, isn’t there an advantage — even an obligation — for the online world to offer an outlet for comments that might damage the reputation of a business (or government) but expose wrongdoing? For ideas that buck conventional wisdom, the collective systems of belief that far too often are based on prejudice, intolerance, and the desire to retain power? For leaked information that a government may wall off as a threat to national security when it is simply inconvenient or embarrassing to the powers that be?
Where should society set the ethical boundaries of anonymity?
Actually, I don’t know. But I’m intending to exploit one of the real benefits of online comment boxes and ask you to do my work for me.
What do you think are the ethical limits of anonymity? Please post. And — ahem — do note our comment-box policies.
©2012 Institute for Global Ethics