Summary. This document addresses the safety, security, and authenticity problems arising from anonymity on the Internet.
Benefits of Anonymity. Anonymity has some benefits to the individual and the community, such as:
- Creates a Sense of Security. Some people feel more secure when online if they can be anonymous. Concerns about stalking or unwarranted retaliation can be alleviated simply by deleting an account.
- Offers Privacy. People wanting to get advice in a public forum about a private issue can do so without concern of disclosing who they are, or the others involved.
- Promotes Freedom of Speech. People sometimes feel safer sharing their views when they are anonymous knowing that verbal retaliation or harassment can be avoided. For example, an employee will speak more honestly about their employer if they can do so anonymously. This is why employee hotlines are often made available by third party organizations that can ensure anonymity. In this regard, anonymity can create a more honest and open environment.
- Protects Public Image. Anonymity is nice for people concerned about saying something that could be taken out of context and used against them later.
- Reduces Self Consciousness. People who are shy about talking openly in front of others can join in a conversation without having any attention on them personally.
Drawbacks of Anonymity. Although there are some apparent benefits to anonymity, the benefits are outweighed and are nullified by the drawbacks of anonymity. These are some of the drawbacks of anonymity to the individual and the community.
- Enables Cyber Bullies and Hecklers. People with malicious intent who are bent on harassing people (sometimes at random) are given a lot of power by the ability to be anonymous.
- Establishes Misrepresentations. Many anonymous accounts and users are basing their involvement in the online community on a misrepresentation about who they are. It’s common for people to create a username that appears to be a real name, but in fact isn’t their real name. They may even use a photo that isn’t their own photo. Rather than disclosing up front that they aren’t who they say they are, they create an elaborate online persona. All of this is essentially based on a lie.
- Degrades Transparency and Authenticity. When people aren’t who they claim to be, the authenticity of the online experience is diminished. Online and offline, societies advance through transparency, openness, and cooperation. Most online services recognize this. Many online networks and websites require users and members to honestly represent who they are. Amazon offers a real name feature to ensure people are not using a fake identity (although the use of this isn’t required). Ensuring that people are who they say they are creates a genuine and authentic community of real people. Many people online are business owners and people who are already in the media or have established an authentic online presence. So, this should not be a problem. Openness and activity online should always be balanced with common sense. Networks like Ning offer online safety guidelines and member privacy controls. Many networks request users to provide honest information about where they are located (such as City and State) and why they are joining.
- Derails Democracy. In anonymous networks, polls, democracy, and other kinds of equality in collaborative input aren’t really feasible because a single member could create 10 or 100 user accounts, each carrying a vote. Only by having a network of real individuals can we assure one vote per person. Each online community is different, but many attempt to have authentic users with technological restraints in place to prevent abuse. For example, with YouTube, you can’t vote on (rate) your own video. Amazon allows people to write reviews and vote on ratings for their own products. However, they can’t push any reviews up the list by personally voting on them more than once. As such, Amazon is a Democracy where each person is a voting member. This is similar to a politician being able to vote for themselves, but only once. So, with YouTube and Amazon (for example) a person can only “vote” once when rating their product or other reviews. This is a technical mechanism in place to assure that people don’t just keep clicking on a button to increase their product or video rankings. With Amazon, only people who have legitimate accounts and purchases can actually write reviews. This helps further reduce misinformation.
- Disrupts Equality. Mixing anonymous users with transparent users is awkward (and unbalanced) because one person (the publicly open and authentic person) has a light shining in their eyes while the other person is hidden. The hidden person is at an advantage (of sorts). They can’t be held accountable. They can “shape-shift” by returning as another anonymous user later. Etiquette, respect, and civility fall by the wayside when people can hide behind a mask and say things they would never say in public.
- Facilitates Shared Account Use. Having a user account with high content productivity is very valuable. High ranking members typically have broader system access. So, groups of people wanting to gain greater access to an online service and greater influence on that network, can enlist many people to use the account. Keeping it anonymous makes it possible to generate numerous product reviews that would never be possible for a single person. This escalates that accounts visibility and influence. Usually, such online anonymous usernames are built-up like a brand and typically the same unique user account name can be found across multiple sites with. Hackers can sell such accounts on the black market once they are well established, or get paid for the product reviews being generated by that one account.
- Fosters False Sense of Community Security. The anonymity that an individual feels protects them, sets up an online world where their security, privacy, and safety are actually at risk. Most cybercrime involves people interacting with anonymous users. A person may think they are communicating with someone across the country only to later find it is an ex-parter or disgruntled neighbor. Movies like You’ve Got Mail are based on the fun and romantic premise that an anonymous person you are talking to could be watching you every day on the way to work. Well… that’s also a scary premise. For this reason, the safest online experience is to seek out online communities and exchanges that are genuine, authentic, honest, respectful and real. Such communities have checks in place to ensure that people are who they say they are, and there are measures to track and deal with those who are abusive online.
- Fosters False Sense of Personal Privacy and Security. For the individual, anonymity creates a false sense of security. While people may feel secure by using fake identities, their activities can be easily tracked using a variety of simple and legal methods. So, the danger of anonymity is that a person may end up feeling more free and secure in their online behavior and activity because they think they are hidden and entirely anonymous. This can result in greater erosion of their privacy and defeats the purpose of what the person hoped for in their anonymity. Off the Internet, anonymity has similar problems. When anonymous, people might do or say things that they never would do were their identity known. So, their behavior is potentially more damaging. Sometimes adolescents covertly engage in vandalism and other activities thinking they won’t get caught. These are things they would never do in public. In the digital age, there is no such thing as complete anonymity. Digital criminals, hackers, and identity thieves explore the Internet, scouring online discussion groups, chat rooms, blogs, websites, and other public data sources attempting to gain information about individuals and organizations for purposes of hacking or identity theft. Those who think they are anonymous are often revealing too much. Those wishing to protect their public image, may discover that things said anonymously in private may end up being attributed to them in public. Legally obtained public information online can easily and quickly be assembled that helps shed light on who is really behind an anonymous username. For this reason, being authentic and genuine online creates a more realistic context for people to communicate. It prevents them from saying things and revealing things they really shouldn’t.
- Impedes Justice. While some anonymous users engage in simply annoying behavior, other activities of anonymous users cross the line and break the law. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult for authorities to track down someone from simply a free email account or online username. It’s easy for abusers to cover their tracks by deleting accounts. While people can be brought to justice and sued, a deleted or abandoned user account can’t.
- Promotes Cybercrime. Of all the stories that make it to the news about online stalkers and various kinds of online crimes, the crimes are almost always committed by an anonymous person. When you’re building an online relationship with someone anonymous, you don’t know who they really are, where they are, or what their motives are. Victims of online fraud and crime are often led to believe something false about a person’s age, gender, or place of residence. This is how their trust is built up. While anonymous online networks have some benefits, they should be approached with caution. Transparent and open networks are safer because two people can easily verify through numerous other sources the validity of the person’s identity. If someone is posing as someone they aren’t, this can easily be fact checked against the real person’s public contact information.
- Reduces Effectiveness. Those who want to make a point are less effective and less personable when hiding behind a mask of anonymity. If you want to be effective online, consider establishing a verifiable identity. Read more about authenticity here.
- Reduces Internet Stability and Security. The security of the Internet and the communities that rely on it are put at risk by the use of anonymity. Anonymity fosters spammers, trolls (people surfing the internet for personal data), stalkers, hackers, digital vandalism, bots (human created accounts that are eventually used by computer programs), rogue accounts, online digital gang wars, abandoned accounts, name squatting (people creating an online persona using someone else’s name), fake identities, identity theft, and other illegal online activity. Anonymity online is as much a security threat as anonymity in society. Identity theft and false identities are now a multi-milion-dollar crime business. States like Iowa have moved to centralized identification offices to avoid real-world trouble makers from moving about being protected and untraceable by fake identities. This is a serious homeland security issue and also a serious online issue. Many larger institutions don’t allow anonymous use of their networks. All users must positively authenticate to the system with their verifiable identification. This helps track down and bring to justice people who would misuse the Internet.
- Reduced Manageability. When people violate the terms of an online service, network or community, it is important to know they can be disciplined and if necessary barred from the community for the safety and stability of the community. When online communities are filled with anonymous users, it’s impossible to hold anyone accountable. Users can easily create multiple user accounts. If banned from a site, they can come back under an alternate email and username. This creates an administrative quagmire and isn’t in the best interest of the community.
Guidelines. Here are some guidelines to consider.
- Anonymous User Interaction Precautions. When dealing with anyone who is anonymous, do so with caution and keep exchanges to a bare minimum. Do not disclose personal information. If an anonymous person becomes abusive, stop communicating with them immediately. Be especially leery of too many personal questions from someone who is anonymous. To keep things fair and maintain equality, both parties should have equal disclosure, transparency, and authenticity. Based on the anonymous person’s online profile, postings, and other activity on the Internet, try to establish some sense of how genuine and safe they are. This can help you judge how or if you should continue communicating with them. It can also help create a context for your interactions with them. If they are lashing out at you, is there something in their profile to suggest they have a chip on their shoulder? If so, try not to take it too personally and just drop the discussion.
- Authentic User Interaction Precautions. When dealing with someone who appears to be genuine and authentic, still use caution unless you can validate they are who they say they are. Seek out online experiences that are genuine, authentic, and safe.
- Facebook. Services like Facebook offer some checks and balances to ensure people are part of a real network of individuals. Most of the time, such online communities are secure, stable, and safe. Even so, sometimes accounts are compromised by phishing emails. When this happens, a hacker (not your friend) can post links to malicious websites to your wall. Friendship requests that arrive, may appear to be from friends of your friends, but these could also be automated requests expanding the friend network of a rogue account. For this reason, always be somewhat cautious in your interactions on Facebook.
Document Background. This document is based on relatively commonplace real-life and real-world experiences over more than a decade of online computing.
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