In 2015, Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales made an unusual announcement for the Wikipedian of the year:
That’s not an online pseudonym — it’s Latin for “in the heart,” a term used by the Catholic Church to honour people who, if their contributions were made public under their real names, would be placed in danger.
Discussions around anonymity online are typically dominated by those who abuse it to wreck havoc and abuse others. For example, The Anti-Defamation League recently reported on an explosion of anti-Semitism on Twitter that came from racists emboldened by the rise of Donald Trump who were able to hide behind anonymous accounts.
Meanwhile, anonymising web browser Tor is often associated with nefarious dark web drug dealers and criminals. But for many, the ability to hide their identity is essential to be able to function online.
Rape threats. The risks of losing their job. Harassment. Danger to loved ones. These are some of the reasons people gave for why they chose to use anonymising software when working online in a new study, “Privacy, Anonymity, and Perceived Risk in Open Collaboration: A Study of Tor Users and Wikipedians.”
“If there are groups of people who feel vulnerable — whether because of their gender, or interests, or race, or ethnicity or something else — then we risk losing their participation,” Andrea Forte, the study’s lead author, told Business Insider. “We risk losing their voices and their perspectives.”
“If you and your family want to live, then you’re going to stop causing trouble.”
Forte set out to examine why people who work together online — on Wikipedia, on open source software, and on other collaborative projects — use software like Tor to obfuscate and hide their true identities.
She interviewed 23 people about their practices — so while the sample size is too small to extrapolate trends, it provides insight into while real people feel the need to act anonymously online.
The overwhelming reason? To protect themselves.
One respondent feared about losing their job if their true gender identity was tied to their real name. “I am transgender. I am queer… my boss…would rant for hours about this kind of person, that kind of person, the other kind of person, all of which I happen to be,” they told Forte. “And I decided that if I was going to do anything [online] at all, I had best look into options for protecting myself because I didn’t want to get fired.”
One Wikipedia editor received death threats, and feared for their partner’s safety: “I pulled back from some of that [Wikipedia] work when I could no longer hide in quite the same way. For a long time I lived on my own, so it’s just my own personal risk I was taking with things. Now, my wife lives here as well, so I can’t take that same risk.”
A third, a political activist, began using Tor after an associate was targeted by the authorities: “They busted [my friend’s] door down and they beat the ever living crap out of him… and told him, ‘If you and your family want to live, then you’re going to stop causing trouble.’… I have a family. So, after I visited him in the hospital, I started — Well, at first I started shaking and went into a cold sweat, then I realised I have to — I started taking some of my human rights activities into other identities through the Tor network.”
Access to anonymity is a political issue.
The internet is not a safe space to talk and work freely. People expressed to Forte fears of perceived bias if they were known to be editing Wikipedia; of wanting to hide aspects of their identity from people in real life; of fears of stalking and harassment.
“People who contribute ideas and tools in a public forum open themselves up to criticism,” she wrote — and a lot more besides.
All this means access to anonymising technology is a political issue. The threat of recriminations means that the very people whose contributions could be most valuable risk being scared away from contributing online. “People’s privacy concerns result in ‘chilling effects’ that limit the voices we hear online,” Forte says.
“If the Internet is going to be this vibrant place where people exchange ideas, where people build things together like software and encyclopedias, where civic participation can thrive, then it has to be seen as a safe place for those activities.”
But given the accompanying risks — the harassment, the abuse, the facilitation of crime — is untraceable anonymity really desirable? Forte believes so. “The infrastructure of the Internet has evolved over time to facilitate increased control and surveillance. We like it when that infrastructure lets us have nice things like, say, credit card transactions or the exact location of our lost phone. But, unchecked, it can also hurt society when some people feel less free to speak than others because, for example, they feel in danger or that their views might be unpopular. That undermines the potential for the Internet to serve as a democratic forum.”
She refers to a 1995 ruling from the US Supreme Court ruling on the subject: “Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views … Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. … It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation…at the hand of an intolerant society.”
Forte plans to present her research, entitled “Privacy, Anonymity, and Perceived Risk in Open Collaboration: A Study of Tor Users and Wikipedians,” at a conference in Oregon in February 2017. You can read it in full below.
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