Global Online Anonymity

With the Internet has come rhetoric about the World Wide Web being a borderless space. It has been imagined as an entity that would challenge old hierarchies and ways of organizing the world.

More often than not, though, the Internet has been a space where offline experiences are reproduced instead of challenged and that sometimes includes borders. This becomes important when we begin to consider the experience of speaking, and acting, anonymously online. And two researchers with ties to Indiana University are doing just that.

Indiana University School of Journalism associate professor Anthony Fargo is the Director of the Center for International Media Law & Policy Studies at IU. He and DePaul University assistant professor Jason Martin, who received his PhD from the School of Journalism, recently presented their research project “Anonymity, Free Speech, & the Internet: A Global Perspective.”

“Anonymity in communication has a long history of practice,” Martin said.

Fargo pointed out that anonymous communication was used throughout the ancient world. Anonymous, and pseudonymous, communication were also vital to Revolutionary War era America.

But the idea that the practice of anonymous communication might be considered a right came much later. In the United States this began to develop in relation to various 1st Amendment court cases and was seen by the courts as not just a speech issue, but one of expression and assembly as well.

“In the United States the issue of anonymity goes to the courts in the mid-20th century,” Fargo said. “The Supreme Court eventually sets a precedent for the idea of a right of anonymity, but it’s not an absolute.”

internet freedom fellows

Internet Freedom Fellows at a press conference at the UN. The fellows discuss aspects of Internet freedom and freedom of expression. The fellowship is a program of the US State Department and the US Mission to the UN in Geneva. (Photo from US Mission Geneva via Flickr.)

It wasn’t long after the establishment of this idea of individuals having a right to anonymity, that the Internet came along, enabling a plethora of ways to anonymously communicate online. As well as a plethora of national concerns over what types of actions and expressions should be protected.

This has only been highlighted of late by the Wikileaks and Edward Snowden-NSA controversies as well as by the actions of the “hacktivist” collective Anonymous.

While some countries offer protection to the people behind such leaks — which often begin anonymously — others do not. And which countries can prosecute anonymous Internet communication and what activities can be prosecuted is bound up in the tangled web of international law.

“Around the world there’s a wide range of of attitudes towards the protection of anonymity online,” Martin said. What it often boils down to is the nature of the information being communicated — if it may harm national security, then countries are less likely to protect the anonymity of the speaker or actor.

And, of course, approaches to anonymous communication and expression are very much bound up in national histories and political contexts.

So, while Fargo and Martin’s talk was framed as a “global perspective” what became apparent is that there is no such global perspective when it comes to an individual right to speak, and act, online.

Both researchers pointed out that this can impact everyone from reddit participants to bloggers to journalists. And so, while there is no single unified global perspective on this issue, Fargo and Martin think some sort of unified, coherent “global” perspective is necessary.

Among the things they’d like to see in the future would be the creation of an international agreement of some kind guaranteeing a right to anonymity or the amendment of certain United Nations documents that would put signatories in the position of having to recognize this right to anonymous speech.

As of now there is “no cohesive global response” to anonymous communication online Fargo said, which can make life difficult for whistleblowers, protesters, activists, or others who are trying to create social change.

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