Anonymity in the Internet
Enhancing factor or threat to freedom of expression?
By Konstantinos Kakavoulis
Anonymity constitutes a founding element for democracies, which respect and promote freedom of expression and dialogue. The right to anonymous speech enhances the citizens’ willingness to express their views publicly, regardless of their courage or the popularity of their views. Anonymous speech enhances civic participation. Thus, minority views and opinions, which come in opposition to the authority or criticize it, are more easily expressed. A democracy requires critique in order to function properly. The value of anonymous speech becomes much more obvious when it comes to non-democratic or non-liberal regimes. The restoration of democracy is frequently based on texts, books and proclamations of unknown creators, which question the current authoritarian regime and demand its replacement.
Of course, it is not necessary that we reach such extreme circumstances to appreciate the value of anonymous speech. Living in a democratic society, we have to be able to understand its value. It is important to mention that the protection of freedom of expression includes anonymous speech.
Expression in the Internet is usually anonymous. Certainly, anonymity does not only safeguard speech of good quality, namely speech which promotes democracy and dialogue. It also protects false, illegal, unethical and insulting speech. Either concerning political, economic, social or artistic discussions, such examples of speech of bad quality are widespread in the Internet. The security provided by anonymity pushes many Internet users to use vulgar, insulting or false speech. Cyber-bullying stems –among others- from the possibility of the Internet users to hide their real identity. But let us not forget that Internet was created by people for the people. Its self-regulation and its good use lie with its users.
The use of anonymity for the promotion of illegal activities is of course alarming, but it can be confronted. The police and judiciary can trace any user who has committed such acts and bring him to justice. This might not always be easy, but it is always possible. Even the users who use the most modern and efficient encryption tools, can be uncovered.
The use of false and insulting speech under the veil of anonymity is something which can be confronted by the very nature of the Internet and its users. Firstly, the promptness and interactivity of the Internet ensure that the person in concern has immediate access to the content, which insults him. He also has the right to respond immediately. Notably, these rights are free of charge, a possibility which is not guaranteed by any other means of communication in such a wide scale. All persons who had access to the initial content –if not more- have also access to the response of the person insulted. Third persons who are interested in unveiling the truth may also act in the same way or contribute in the endeavour of the person insulted. Practically, everything that is published in the Internet is accessible by everyone. This means that everyone can check and comment on its precision.
Secondly, the credibility of the Internet ensures that an anonymous form of expression must have a serious content. If someone wishes to publish something anonymously, he must at least make sure that the content is true and sincere, if he wants his publication to be considered credible. An anonymous publication will not easily become as popular as a publication in a website, which has become widely known for not disclosing untrue information. Thus, a post from an anonymous blog will not be able to challenge a post by the Guardian or Le Monde, if it does not have a true and sincere content. The credibility of the Internet in this way ensures that false content is delimited and its untrue nature is unveiled.
Anonymity in the Internet entails that everyone may express his opinion publicly and be heard by an audience of billions of people. However, it also entails that billions of people may check and comment on this opinion. Anonymity ensures that many and different voices are heard in the Internet. As long as all of us, as Internet users, adopt a critical stance to the information communicated to us, we have nothing to fear from anonymity. Freedom of expression is not possible without the protection of anonymous speech.
When you use the Internet, always remember that you may read, think, doubt, search – and most importantly express your opinion. The Internet is the best means that exists in order to fully achieve freedom of expression. The extent to which we achieve it, is in our hands.