To some, being anonymous on the internet is freedom to speak truth to power. For others, someone else’s anonymity puts a target on their back.
This double-edged sword of online anonymity is something Will Duffield, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government, has dedicated his career to examining. In a Plumia Talks live interviewDuffield explained what internet anonymity provides the world.
Revelation rather than transformation
On the surface, it appears as though anonymity has caused a lot of the hate-filled, fake-news, misinformation and disinformation seen online. Duffield doesn’t think that the idea that online anonymity causes problems, however. Instead, he feels it brings to the fore that which already existed – both good and bad.
“Obviously, there are new ways to misuse these tools,” Duffield says. “But for the most part, I think the internet reveals more than it transforms.”
Most internet users believe they have absolute anonymity online, when in reality it’s more like pseudo-anonymity. “It’s important not to confuse the two”, Duffied says.
Absolute anonymity means that no one knows who you are. Partial anonymity is when the public may not know who you are but the platform you’re using has multiple ID-verifying pieces of information about you. “Even if you're running a pseudo anonymous Twitter account, Twitter knows where you're you're logging in from and your internet provider knows how you're logging in,” Duffield says.
The distinction is important because of its legal implications.
In some cases, people may use the costliness of the current justice system as a form of punishment unto itself. People sue others not necessarily to win the case but to destroy public opinion, force the pseudonymous account to reveal their real identity, or bankrupt them through the process of litigation.
Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (known as SLAPP suits) are lawsuits intended to intimidate or censor critics by burying them in legal expenses. “Essentially, lawsuits intended to shut someone up by making the process the punishment,” Duffield says.
A court can block the lawsuit if it feels it’s a SLAPP attempt solely to punish someone with the litigation process, but only if the judge feels there’s a real chance the account would win a freedom of speech challenge. This means that even anonymous accounts cannot use online platforms to commit crimes without ramification. “But until that point, you can't use the lawsuit as a means of forcing the unmasking,” Duffield says.
How to regulate the internet
A lot of internet regulation advocates say there needs to be a change to Section 230, a US law inspired by pre-internet distributor liability laws. Under the current legislation, a platform cannot be held responsible for the content on its platform. “Responsibility still ultimately lies with the user hosting the speech rather than the host,” Duffield says. “Just as in the pre-internet realm, the author of the book could be could be held liable for its contents, but the bookseller would not.”
Regulation advocates say that this law is too lenient and allows major platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to publish abhorrent content without repercussion. According to Duffield, advocates point out the fact that between moderation rules, curation of personalized feeds, and terms of service, these platforms are effectively taking part in the creation of content in an editorial capacity, meaning they should be held liable for its content.
This model works, Duffield says, only if you can hold individuals to account for their content. The problem is modern law enforcement does not know how to deal with it.
He gave the example of a woman who harassed multiple people online for over a decade, seemingly without repercussions. However, as soon as the police charged her with criminal harassment, a charge applied for the equivalent crimes in the offline world, the online harassment also stopped.
“A lot of it just comes with learning how people misuse the internet relative to how they misused old tools, and updating law enforcement approaches to it,” Duffield says.
But while Duffield is a self-admitted proponent of legislation, he is wary of deplatforming. He gives the example of Alex Jones, who was banned from YouTube, Facebook, and Apple because he repeatedly broke their terms of service. However, deplatforming him did not stop him. Instead, says Duffield, it moved to even less-regulated and more fringe parts of the internet which is, arguably, a lot worse.
“[When you get deplatformed], there's no opportunity for someone to drive by and make fun of you for believing outlandish conspiracies,” Duffield says. “I think that sort of counter speech is often the most effective. And I don't want to lose that.”