Twitter’s default avatar (2017)

Why would a democracy want to end social media anonymity?

Enrique Dans
Dec 1, 2017 · 3 min read

Spain’s ruling Popular Party (PP) has called for an end of the anonymity on social media in the wake of alleged threats on Twitter against one of its senior figures; in doing so all it has shown is that it has no idea about how the internet works.

Let’s assume that the PP’s is based on serious analysis, rather than a knee-jerk response: I have always argued that anonymity is a fundamental right on the internet, a view shared by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which as a lot of information on its website about the subject, as well as the United Nations, which affirms in a publicly available document that encryption and anonymity are fundamental to allowing individuals to exercise their freedom of opinion and expression in the digital age. Ending anonymity or banning encryption implies a serious restriction of our democratic rights.

Anybody who has been attacked, harassed or insulted on the internet wants to respond in some way. Often that can be direct, and which sometimes encourages trolls. When a senior politician is the target of abuse, the temptation to pass sweeping legislation is understandable, but nonetheless should be resisted: politicians are required to look at every angle.

Ending internet anonymity effectively means accepting an authoritarian regime such as in China, which is now one step away from George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. The idea that social media should carry out the wishes of governments in requiring users to provide accountable identification is simply unrealistic. Good luck with that one.

Politicians sometimes make a parallel between the Twitter egg, which has already been replaced by another format in a bid to eliminate its negative connotations, and the infamous hoodie… ending anonymity is more equivalent to being asked to wear an identity badge at all times. What’s more, it’s very hard to be truly anonymous on the internet, and judicial requests have been to ISPs as part of a criminal investigation, wrongdoers are usually identified.

I am totally in favor of identifying, prosecuting and condemning anyone who commits a crime on the internet in the context of a judicial investigation. Punishing people who insult, defame, harass or threaten others is important and makes us a freer society and prevents thugs from dominating the conversation. At the same time, we need to protect the right to parody.

We need to find ways to educate society about our online responsibilities; the social media have been around for a while now, but there are still people new to them who don’t understand or accept the need for basic guidelines about their correct use. It takes time, but with the right tools and the right approach, it can be done.

Politicians and people with access to power often display an uncontrollable desire for control. The belief that eliminating encryption will deny criminals a hiding place reveals a profound ignorance of how the internet works: it is a conceptual absurdity. Few things undermine a politician’s credibility more than implementing laws that cannot be enacted in reality; what’s more, criminals would simply find more sophisticated ways to cover their tracks, and before long, the rest of us would find ourselves being eavesdropped on. Politicians must understand that total control is incompatible with democracy, and that as long as somebody doesn’t commit a crime, we will just have to put up with some people misusing social media to insult and harass. We all know what constitutes a crime, and we don’t need new laws every time somebody does something annoying or offensive. Not everything that we dislike or find annoying is a crime, deciding what is or isn’t is the job of the courts, and we should be very worried when our elected representatives assume that anonymity is automatically rooted in the desire to commit a crime. Anonymity, like encryption, is a fundamental right of people in the digital age, and an enormously complex issue, with many nuances ranging from the freedom to be known by the name you wish, to the search for protection against prejudice or persecution. Whenever our politicians demand the end of anonymity, as if it were the solution to all evils, we should be alarmed: it is the thin end of the wedge.


(En español, aquí)

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

Enrique Dans

Written by

Professor of Innovation at IE Business School and blogger at enriquedans.com

Enrique Dans

On the effects of technology innovation on people, companies and society (writing in Spanish at enriquedans.com since 2003)

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