Some brave Apollo… Should the Internet ban anonymity?

Ren? Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009  øðä îàâøéè, áðå ùì àãí, 1964, øñèåøöéä ò"é ùîòåï éðåáéõ, 2009

On Slate, Anne Applebaum wrote:

Anyone who writes online should be as responsible for his words as if he were speaking them aloud. I know there are arguments in favor of anonymity, but too many people now abuse the privilege. Human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, should belong to real human beings, and not to anonymous trolls. [Source]

There’s an oddness to this argument: are anonymous trolls not real human beings?  Perhaps — as Seneca might argue — we only really exist in communication with others and, as such, our persona online is not really a human being who can hold rights in the traditional mode.  Maybe the self who is online bears no rights while the self who engages with others in person does.  Or perhaps Anne misspoke because she was after a snazzy closing quote.  Who knows?

What I do know is that this idea of being recognisable to all people at all times is not new.  I recently wrote about this intuition in regard to the burqa debate:

The launchpad for this begins with the concern that niqab is a threat to security not because Muslims are all trying to kill us, but because we cannot identify the person who is wearing the niqab.  It’s on this point that the ‘anti-burqa’ crowd seem to feel they’re being more reasonable and less Islamophobic.  If we lived in a culture vacuum where phrases weren’t situated in the context of discussing the way somebody expresses their religio-cultural norms, it might be less Islamophobic.  Alas, we don’t.

But even if we did, how reasonable is it to think that we must, at all times, dress in such a way that allows other people to identify us for security reasons?  How reasonable is it to think that we must, even in some situations, dress in a way that enables others to monitor us?

Foucault, for example, argues in Discipline and Punish, that we condemn everybody to the light because it allows us to regulate their behaviour (and, conversely, for them to regulate our behaviour).

I am in favour of the surveillance state.  I think that we need more recording of what’s done in public.  But I also have a very sharp definition of ‘public’.  I don’t want the state filming what goes on in my home, for example.

The puzzle, for me, is where the private and the public are distinguished.  People argue that their activities online should be private yet, as I argued on SBS, we treat it as if it’s a public space:

But the ‘private information’ in the middle of that sentence isn’t ‘private’ in the common, ordinary sense of the word.  It’s private in that special Internet-activist sense of the word.  The ‘theft’ is merely observing the information that a person has put into the public space.  It’s information that the person already shares with a host of companies, advertisers, data miners, &c., &c., &c.

In short, this ‘private’ information is — to use the common tongue — ‘public’ information.

So let’s tie up the threads.  Applebaum is arguing that she should know who you are when you post information online.  The regulation of people’s behaviour should be in the hands of private individuals who own media platforms.  This is beyond any sort of surveillance state that I support.  Instead of having the State informed about what’s going on in public, Applebaum wants private organisations to have the same level of access to your public activities, forcing you to identify yourself to them.

This invasion of the personal space by corporations is hardly new.  We are compelled to give up so many rights to quiet enjoyment by shady companies who want to mine our data.  It is odd that we continue to see the threat to quiet enjoyment to be the state rather than more powerful, unregulated individuals and companies.  Alas, the language of our civic debates is rooted firmly in the 18th Century and shows no sign of maturing any time soon.  Thus, the threats to your freedom of expression are believed to be entirely governmental and not corporate, and Charters of Rights are needed to restrict state action and not the actions of the privately powerful.

Applebaum’s proposal is wrongheaded.  We need greater ability to navigate public space without companies censoring us through intimidation.  We need to make it easier for the state to identify and punish people who break the law — through threats, &c., — but we don’t need to hand that power over to the private sector.

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