“There are myriad reasons why individuals may wish to use a name other than the one they were born with. They may be concerned about threats to their lives or livelihoods, or they may risk political or economic retribution. They may wish to prevent discrimination or they may use a name that’s easier to pronounce or spell in a given culture.”
These words, from a blog post we published nine years ago during my first year at EFF, remain as true as ever. Whether we’re talking about whistleblowers, victims of domestic violence, queer and trans youth who aren’t out to their local communities, or human rights workers, secure anonymity is critical for these individuals, even life-saving.
And yet, our right to anonymity online remains at risk. Just last month, British television presenter Caroline Flack’s death by suicide prompted calls for more regulation of social media, with some pundits suggesting platforms require ID. In India, a similar proposal is expected to be released by the country’s IT Ministry, although reports indicate that verification would be optional.
Proponents of such proposals believe that when people use their “real” name, they behave more civilly toward one another. Facebook has long maintained that their policy requiring “authentic identity” keeps users safe. But the evidence just isn’t there. One report, from the Coral Project, breaks down the fallacy of why people believe anonymity makes people less civil, while another—from commenting platform Disqus—suggests that people are at their kindest when using a pseudonym.
But most importantly, there are myriad reasons why anonymity and pseudonymity remain vital tools for free expression and safety. Take, for instance, our recent case involving Darkspilver, a member of the Jehovah’s Witness community who posted comments—including a copy of an advertisement from the organization’s Watchtower magazine—to Reddit. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society pursued a copyright claim against Darkspilver over the advertisement. A magistrate judge ruled that the organization should be able to pursue its claim, and ordered the disclosure of Darkspilver’s identity.
Darkspilver had serious concerns about being “disfellowshipped” from their community, having seen others cut off from their families and communities. EFF was able to successfully appeal in District Court, however, and Darkspilver’s anonymity remains protected.
Today, as we’re seeing many of our digital rights impacted by governments’ handling of COVID-19, the right to anonymity remains vital. We’ve already seen important medical information being shared with the press by anonymous health experts in Wuhan. We’ve also already heard stories of vital information being suppressed, and arrests of those who speak out against their governments.
In times of turmoil, authorities might scapegoat anonymous speakers, blaming them for societal challenges. But anonymous speech is often how the public finds out the depth and severity of those challenges, be it an abuse of political power or the severity of a global pandemic. Without anonymous speech, some lies powerful people tell would go unchecked.