Why we need anonymity on the Internet -- even if it hurts

I have recently restarted Free Software Magazine, after working full time on a free software project. One of my articles ended up on Slashdot. In the past, this meant hours of frantic work: on one hand, being "slashdotted" meant dealing with a huge influx of traffic which normally brought our server to its knees; on the other hand, it meant discussing the article with very intelligent people. I didn't expect what followed this time: I was the target of what I assume to be a couple of well spoken millennials who carried out a grating, personal attack against me. They obviously didn't read my article: they simply assumed what it might have been about, kept on trolling, provoking, and abusing. At some point, I developed an aversion to the ability to be anonymous; however, I realised that anonymity is too important to be given up -- even when it hurts.

The case for anonymous cowards

There are many cases where anonymity is not just something important: it's a necessity. For example, vulnerable youth who are target of discriminations for their sexual orientation might ask for advice online on how to deal with their sexuality; the political dissident might need to stay anonymous to protect his family; people who are concerned about their safety while making a comment online (for example criticising drug growers where they live, in South America, or speaking out about bike gangs in their region); people seeking mental help advice, or other sensitive health advice, who don't want others to be aware of their issues. The list goes on and on: there are tons of very legitimate reasons why you might want to be able to remain anonymous.

The case against anonymity

Unfortunately, there are some strong cases against anonymity too. The main one is cyber bullying: people tend to behave at their worst when they know that their actions won't have consequences, and will say things they wouldn't normally say. Vulnerable teenagers are target of cyber bullying every day. Also, anonymity can make a lone, testosterone-loaded millennials look like 10 different people all attacking the same person, making it look like several people share the same hateful sentiments -- and, worse influencing genuine viewers's opinions as a result.

The result

I had a friend once who told me that after being abused by a stranger over the phone, she never picks up from numbers she doesn't have in her phone. In fact, her phone doesn't even ring. If somebody who doesn't know wants to get in touch, she says, they can send her a text. She told me that her life improved dramatically after that decision: no more abuses, telemarketers, unwanted phone calls, ever. It's an important lesson for me too: if an anonymous person is attacking you, you can always ignore them. What gives them power, is your responses. This way, everybody wins -- and the trolls eventually will get bored of being ignored.


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