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The Year Anonymity Came Under Attack (For Some of Us)

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Perhaps it’s a little soon for the standard year-end “this is the year that was” retrospective. After all, it’s only November, and we have important things to worry about besides manufactured nostalgia: unemployment, Thanksgiving, college football. But, if I may jump the gun a bit: I would like to propose this year as The Year Anonymity Came Under Attack.

Here at the U, I study new media in the Communication department. Specifically, I study the culture and political economy of the Internet. Thus I am particularly attuned to the ways in which we think about, regulate, and use the Internet. One of the most pressing themes in my line of study has been the increasingly negative light that online anonymity has been cast in.

Exhibit A came in January, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her extremely important speech on Internet Freedom. She outlined the limits of speech on the Internet, drawing emphatic lines at incitements to terrorism and hate. Then, she turned to anonymity: “We must also grapple with the issue of anonymous speech. Those who use the internet to recruit terrorists or distribute stolen intellectual property cannot divorce their online actions from their real world identities.” In other words, both terrorists and pirates must be registered so we can figure out who and where they are, presumably in order to put them in jail.

To be fair, Clinton did note that “these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the Internet for peaceful political purposes.” She’s clearly aware of the age-old quandary of balancing freedom and security, but she didn’t explain how to engage in that balancing act.

That’s where the Obama Administration’s National Strategy for Trusted Identities in Cyberspace [PDF] comes in. This document outlines an identity “ecosystem” – read by privacy activists as implying a sort of de facto online ID card – to combat fake identities. “ As the NS-TIC explains,

“Envision it! An individual voluntarily requests a smart identity card from her home state. The individual chooses to use the card to authenticate herself for a variety of online services, including… Online banking… [and] Anonymously posting blog entries.”

It sounds like the report wants to preserve anonymous speech. However, the use of this “smart ID” is built on trust, but not in the way we might hope. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation rightly noted, “The proposal mistakenly conflates trusting a third party to not reveal your identity with actual anonymity — where third parties don’t know your identity. When Thomas Paine anonymously published Common Sense in 1776, he didn’t secretly register with the British Crown.”

Finally, closer to home, KSL.com eliminated their online comment boards. The reason? Anonymous commentors. KSL cited a lack of civility online, specifically in the form of ad hominen attacks against subjects in news stories and amongst the commentors themselves.

So, it’s clear that this year – The Year Anonymity Came Under Attack – has seen quite a few shifts in how we think about anonymous speech, particularly on the Internet. Anonymous speech, we’re learning, is the last refuge of pirates, terrorists, and illogical loudmouths.

And yet, something strange has happened. Certain groups have seen their rights to anonymity increase this year.

A few months after Clinton’s speech, the Obama administration proposed a new language in FBI National Security Letters. According to the Washington Post, these changes would “make it easier for the FBI to compel companies to turn over records of an individual’s Internet activity without a court order if agents deem the information relevant to a terrorism or intelligence investigation.”  This is of course a longstanding, post-PATRIOT Act trend in federal regulation and surveillance of the Internet, but that doesn’t make this action any less egregious. In sum, the FBI would have the right to do this form of surveillance anonymously.

Of course, anonymity is not just the privilege of the FBI. 2010 – the year of the film The Social Network – is also a year of increased use of Facebook. Facebook is, of course, predicated on our using real-world identities to connect with our “social graphs.” But, as Douglas Rushkoff repeatedly notes, Facebook isn’t about friendship so much as it is about using hidden algorithms to monetize friendship by quietly (dare I say “anonymously”) watching our activities and attempting to sell us relevant products. Ladies, just count the number of Acai Berry weight loss ads you’ve seen and you’ll see what I mean. And, as Marc Andrejevic argues in his book iSpy, the companies gathering data on us refuse to disclose precisely what information they have, citing concerns about the proprietary nature of their snooping.

But perhaps the most important shift in anonymity came as a result of the January Citizens United versus the Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court ruling. Thanks in part to that decision, secret (i.e. anonymous) donations to tax-exempt political organizations are on the rise. The majority of these donations went to Republican-backing organizations, but you can bet your (secret) bottom dollar that when the political winds shift the left, secret donations will flow to Democratic organizations. In any case, organizations are far more able to receive and spend anonymous donations, and thus when our legislators create laws, we won’t know whom they’re working for.

So, maybe this is The Year Where Anonymity Made a Comeback?

No. I see anonymity as something that has shifted from being conceived of as a more or less universal right (especially online, but certainly in other areas of social life) into a privilege reserved for specific groups. In fact, it’s downright dialectical: the more anxiety there is over anonymous speech, the more powerful entities seek to use the anonymizing potential of the network to police it and ferret out whomever is undesirable this year. Ultimately, I don’t think I would be as troubled with the systematic reduction of online anonymous speech if it hadn’t been accompanied with an increase in anonymity for these groups. That is, I might be able to fathom having my online statements linked back to me – my real name is at the top of this post, after all – but when wealthy donors can buy election ads without revealing who they are, and when federal agents surveil our activities without ever having to reveal that they did so or why, then it seems as if anonymity is being reserved for a select, powerful few.

So perhaps, at least for this 2010 nostalgia trip, we should think of this past year as The Year Anonymity Became Reserved For Federal Agents, Large Donors to Unregulated PACS, and The Owners of Social Networking Sites, While the Rest of Us Found Ourselves Outed Online. I know: it’s not really that catchy, and it probably won’t be used in too many 2010 retrospectives, but at least it’s pretty accurate. Happy New Year!