‘In a battle between staying anonymous and being unmasked, there is no excuse for being unprepared’

Kiran Jonnalagadda May 23, 2017 5 min

 

Editor’s note: Anonymity on the internet has its pros and cons. It helps whistleblowers, but also gives rise to online abuse. Last week, Bangalore-based internet activist and entrepreneur Kiran Jonnalagadda showed that set of sock puppet accounts anonymously operated by members of India’s software products think tank iSpirt were running campaigns to support Aadhaar, India’s biometric identity system. Some of those accounts were also trolling anti-Aadhaar voices on Twitter. Here’s a take from Kiran on why anonymity is still important to protect.

Anonymity is both good and necessary. It is a recurring feature in any closed system. Take elections for example. Your vote is anonymous, and this is an essential feature, but you only have voting privileges if you meet specific criteria such as being a citizen and over 18 — meaning it is a closed system. Anonymity does not allow anyone outside the system to participate.

Anonymity is both good and necessary. It is a recurring feature in any closed system… Anonymity does not allow anyone outside the system to participate  

Throughout most of history, closed systems have been easy to maintain because distance and language make natural barriers. The early internet, by simple virtue of being a relatively small place and limited to those geeky and privileged enough to get online, functioned like a closed system.

Early chat forums, from Usenet to IRC to email lists, also use the metaphor of a “room” wherein you had to enter a room to see the conversations within. A statement made inside a room was therefore unlikely to be seen by anyone not in the room.

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The social network metaphor, starting from the early 2000s, did away with the concept of rooms and instead defined networks around individuals based on their follows and followers, letting each user exist in a virtual room that shared significant overlap with the next person’s virtual room. Once these networks introduced sharing — Twitter’s retweet, Facebook’s share and so on — they added the ability for your words to be carried to an audience far beyond what you thought it was going to, with all the attendant upsides (influence) and downsides (loss of context and unwanted attention).

We can see one example of careful thought being put into anonymity on a social network on Quora, the Q&A site. When Quora launched, it included anonymous Q&A as a standard feature. However, since this could easily be abused for harassment, Quora added two other restrictions:

1. You had to have a Quora account to post anonymously, ensuring that you were part of the closed system, not an outsider.

2. Quora membership was available by invite only, preventing people from making new accounts just to use anonymously.

Both of these constraints worked to create a community that maintained civil discourse even while embracing anonymity. In Quora’s vision, a question or answer can continue to remain relevant even if you don’t know who is asking or answering.

Online social networks continue to be subject to the rule of law, but social networks, as with all software-defined matchmaker platforms, also find it necessary to define their own governance system, separate from the law  

While anonymous speech has a long tradition in society (consider, for instance, writing and publishing under pen names), society has also evolved mechanisms for dealing with unwanted speech such as libel, blasphemy and harassment, allowing the government to demand your identity from your associates (such as your publisher) under specific conditions and with due process (such as a court warrant).

Online social networks continue to be subject to the rule of law, but social networks, as with all software-defined matchmaker platforms, also find it necessary to define their own governance system, separate from the law. These are usually defined as the community code of conduct and can include rules such as Facebook’s ban on nudity, or the underlying process behind the “Report this” button on any of these sites. (See Matchmakers for a detailed examination of why these governance rules become necessary.)

What we’ve seen in the case of Twitter in particular is governance rules that overemphasise free and anonymous speech and under-emphasise limits on such speech, which is why Twitter is particularly prone to anonymous harassment  

What we’ve seen in the case of Twitter in particular is governance rules that overemphasise free and anonymous speech and under-emphasise limits on such speech, which is why Twitter is particularly prone to anonymous harassment. In my opinion, this is something for Twitter to reflect on and make amendments for, and this appears to be a widely held opinion.

Finally, if you’re doing anything that is likely to draw unwelcome attention, it is imperative for you to know how to protect yourself. The world of technology is a constant arms race, and in a battle between staying anonymous and being unmasked, there is no excuse for being unprepared. The recent episode has been a reminder for me on how badly educated people are. While I have no sympathy for those trying to abuse me (apart from their lack of education), I’m also concerned for others doing good work anonymously who may suddenly have a new tool (password reset) used against them. I hope they will stay alert and stay ahead of the curve.

Lead visual: Nikhil Raj


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