The importance of being anonymous

A minor subplot in the grand narrative of Aadhaar has raised important questions about privacy

N S Ramnath

[By Pete Linforth under Creative Commons]

Anonymity has a way of never going out of fashion or out of the news cycle.

Remember this tweet?

Last week, CNN managed to find out the identity of the man who created the gif. It also discovered that the man, who went by the name HanA**holeSolo (Han) on Reddit, had posted several racist and anti-Semitic messages in the past. Han profusely and publicly apologised, and privately pleaded with the channel not to disclose his real name. CNN complied with the request, on the condition that he should stop posting racist messages. Since no good deed goes unpunished these days, the channel was accused of blackmailing the meme creator, and for threatening to violate his right to be anonymous.

While the internet was still hot with that outrage, a senior Scottish National Party politician, Alyn Smith, suggested that his partymen be banned from using anonymous accounts on social media. He called for a code of conduct that includes “a ban on the kind of anonymous accounts which seem to enable people to be so unpleasant”. That came after some of his colleagues were caught saying bad things under fake accounts, including calling their opponents—no marks for guessing—Nazis.

India saw a similar debate play out in May after entrepreneur and internet activist Kiran Jonnalagadda revealed that at least two anonymous accounts that were trolling critics of Aadhaar were created and run (at least for some time) by Sharad Sharma, a co-founder of software products think tank iSpirt. iSpirt is one of the biggest cheerleaders of Aadhaar and India Stack. Sharma apologised. Soon, the accounts named by Jonnalagadda turned inactive.

In the larger story of Aadhaar, this episode might be relegated to a footnote. However, it raises two serious questions about privacy. Does right to privacy include right to be anonymous? What happens when that right is misused, to spread hatred, to incite violence, to push lies? These questions are important—and they will become increasingly more so—as India drafts its own privacy law. The benefits, risks, and checks and balances on anonymity need to be explored in some depth.

Do we need anonymity? The short answer is, yes. Because anonymity protects both the person and the message. It gives the protection by unbundling what’s said and who said it, and by erecting a wall of ignorance between the two.

What we say is often less like an arrow and more like a boomerang. It comes back to us, sooner or later. Sometimes, it can cause us physical harm. People have been beaten up or put in jail for offending others, for telling the truth, for whistleblowing. It can cause financial harm. Some have lost jobs because of inappropriate comments on social media. It can lead to social exclusion. Many have found themselves being uninvited to conferences and parties because they made politically incorrect statements. It can lead to loss of reputation, or simply dent the way we want the world to look at us. For example, going to discussion forums and social media might guide us to a right treatment for a medical condition, but the world need not know we were looking for it.

Anonymity also separates the inherent value of a message from the reputation of the person saying it. The Tamil classic Thirukkural says, intelligence is in seeing the truth irrespective of who says it. But, it’s not easy. We often don’t have the experience or the skill to tell signal from noise, to separate wheat from chaff, to recognize the subtle difference between truth and half-truths. So, we depend on the reputation of the person saying it. We often use the quality of the source of information as an indicator of the quality of information. We use it because it works.

The downside is, it can also make us dismiss a valid point because we are not impressed with the person who proposed it. An engineer who worked in the Aadhaar project and now volunteers for iSpirt said his comments and clarification on Aadhaar are not taken at face value because of his association with iSpirt. They might be facts. Anyone can fact-check them. Yet, his comments get diluted because his twitter bio says iSpirt volunteer, he said.

If this doesn’t come as a surprise, it’s because as a society, we appreciate the benefit of anonymity. In some professions, it is a part of professional ethics. In journalism, some of the most important newsbreaks wouldn’t have happened but for journalists protecting the anonymity of their sources—sometimes by even going to jail. In some cases, editors withhold the name of a journalist for reasons of pragmatism. A few years back, an in-depth feature on Sri Lanka appeared in Caravan without a byline, just so the journalist didn’t have to face entry issues when she landed in the country for further reporting.

But, such anonymity can also be misused. It might be most talked about in the context of Twitter, but the internet itself expanded the canvas for anonymous trolls. (Remember The New Yorker cartoon, ‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog’?) While some create anonymous accounts for the sole purpose of being nasty and spreading false news, anonymity can turn even otherwise nice people into trolls. All that the volunteers at iSpirt wanted to do was to share information, do some fact checking and in general provide more clarity on Aadhaar and India Stack. But, once the anonymity was agreed to in principle, one thing led to other, and some of the accounts began saying nasty things about Aadhaar critics.

When it comes to important issues that have significant impact on an entire population, such as Aadhaar, the problem is not just rudeness. It’s also about citizens’ right to know more about the influential voices that shape policies. Are there vested interests? What’s at stake? What’s the worldview of those who take a specific stand? Are they standing for some ideology, or are they lobbying for someone else? What’s the agenda? Lifting the veil of anonymity will not answer all these questions. But with anonymity we will be one step further away from knowing these crucial questions.

The common thread is the lack of accountability. With anonymity, people get away with saying nasty things, half-truths and lies. And there is no way to check where they come from, what their real agenda is. The same feature that helps some to do what’s socially beneficial, also enables some others to do what’s harmful.

The very act of lifting the veil of anonymity can help. In case of Han, the CNN meme creator, a threat to disclose his real name was enough to make him promise he will stop posting hateful messages. That is also the idea behind the Scottish MP suggesting a ban on using anonymous accounts—that it would dissuade people from saying nasty things. Closer home, once Jonnalagadda named Sharma as the person behind the anonymous accounts, trolling stopped. We have no idea if Han will use some other handle, or how SNP would ensure there are no anonymous accounts, or if some other accounts will be created to troll Aadhaar critics. But, in one way or the other, these incidents underscore the fact that there is nothing like 100% anonymity. On the internet, everybody can potentially find out you are a dog.

Does a solution to the problem of anonymity lie in that fact?

In his book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet, Daniel J. Solove, a professor at George Washington University Law School, summarises the problem and offers a solution: traceable anonymity.

“The more people can spread falsehoods or invade privacy without accountability or fear of repercussions, the more likely they are to do so. Anonymous speech can cause reputational harm to others, and it can undermine the ability of those harmed to seek redress. Anonymity hobbles the pursuit of legal remedies for privacy violations and defamation. How, then, should we balance anonymity with accountability?

“One way to strike a balance is to enforce traceable anonymity. In other words, we preserve the right for people to speak anonymously, but in the event that one causes harm to another, we’ve preserved a way to trace who the culprit is. A harmed individual can get a court order to obtain the identity of an anonymous speaker only after demonstrating genuine harm and the need to know who caused that harm.”

In the Aadhaar critic trolling case, that’s exactly what happened. Jonnalagadda is technology savvy, and he belongs to a closely knit tech community. That helped him trace the person who was trolling anonymously.

What Solove suggests is something more systematic, more institutionalised. It answers more questions. What is the recourse for someone who is not tech savvy? Would hiring people who are good at tech help? But, what if that person is not rich enough, or influential enough to get civil society work for his or her cause? Should government step in? Should our laws spell out the limits to anonymity, and what happens when someone crosses that line? What then will happen to privacy policies of big tech firms?

These are important questions that we as a society will find the answers for. The Aadhaar rollout has raised important questions on data protection and privacy. The questions that some of the side stories have raised are no less important.

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About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Journalist, Author

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.

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