Group 5 2014: Online Anonymity

As the internet has evolved over the past few decades virtually everyone who has used it developed an online persona, a collection of what they have posted and viewed that has become their identity online. This identity often proves quite difficult to tie to an individual due to the anonymity that the internet offers. Some people see this as problematic since offensive or disturbing things can be posted with little fear of being identified as the author, while others see it as positive, allowing for free speech with much less fear of retribution.


In general anonymity has been a defining part of the internet and it allows for freedom of expression that many cannot find elsewhere. The question remains, to what extent should internet anonymity exist in today’s world? Given no anonymity users are subject to reprisal from any party taking offense to what is said, which could prove especially troubling in the case of dissidents in countries without free speech. Given total anonymity users do not have to take any responsibility for what they post, this could allow a hotbed of posts that do not contribute. Therefore the best option seems to logically be a balance of the two, with sites allowing or disallowing user anonymity depending on their individual idea of how they wish their website to function.


People spend a great deal of time each day chatting online, starting from the first public bulletin board system developed in 1973, to instant messenger services in the early 2000’s, and even today with Facebook, online socializing has truly been ingrained as a non-separable part of daily life.

First BBS
The first bulletin board system was named Community Memory developed in Berkeley California by Efrem Lipkin, Mark Szpakowski, and Lee Felsenstein in 1973. Community Memory was connected by a 110-baud line to the host in San-Francisco, allowing users to type messages into a terminal after inserting a coin (1).

Faster & Practical use
With the original 110 baud modems, the BBSes were extremely impractical due to slow transfer speeds and limited text files. With the introduction of 1200 bit modems in early 1980s, the transfer speed improved significantly. Following this improvement, the 2400 and 9600 bit modems began to launch in the market with great success in the early 1990s.

From Anonymity to Real-name system
The 1990s were the best period for BBSes, they became one of the most welcomed products of the technology industry. Magazines were written devoted to extensive coverage for this sunrise industry. According to FidoNet, Nodelist BBSes reached their peak usage in 1996, which was the same period that the World Wide Web began to emerge as mainstream (2).

At that time, users rarely use their real name while chatting online. They were afraid to show their real personal life to the audiences because they did not trust the internet. With the internet revolution, technologies started to become more and more mature, and as this occurred people gradually started accepting it. A well-known example of this is Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in February 2004, which basically requires users to register with their real identities. Facebook provided a new mindset for later online transactions.

Conforming to the historical trend of that time, South Korea became the first country to put a large scale real-name system into practice in 2009. Online real-name system refers to the policy requirement that any transaction shall be conducted under a real name online. However, the practice or requiring online real-name system is always been quite controversial since it was enacted. In August 2012, the Constitutional Court of South Korea decided to abolish the online real-name system, declaring it as unconstitutional (3).

Anonymity or Real-name system

For many years anonymity vs real-name systems has been a hot topic with respect to which is best for the future of cyberspace. Mr. Weigert, Germany’s state’s privacy commissioner, once wrote to Facebook, threatening to fine the social media company for failing to allow state citizens to register anonymously, in breach of German law. Facebook immediately rejected Mr. Weigert’s ruling, declaring “We believe the orders are without merit, a waste of German taxpayers’ money and we will fight it vigorously” (The Wall Street Journal) (4).

But are the orders truly without any merit? Since the online real-name system was born with Facebook, it has been under constant controversy. Andrea Kates, the founder of the Business Genome project and the author of the business innovation book ‘Find Your Next’, once had a debate with Guy Clapperton, a technology author and broadcaster. She firmly believes that we have the right to remain anonymous in cyberspace. Andrea believes that all forms of anonymity is, or at least should be, a human right, but also admitting that there are drawbacks relating to anonymity, such as cyber-bullying or digital stalking. However none of these should be the argument against anonymity.

Her main reason supporting the anonymity is that she personally like her work to be up for public scrutiny, anonymity actually helps people to be honest with the author but not try to please him/her. According to her post on the Engineering Technology Magazine, she says “If I had to identify myself every time I went online and left a comment my behavior would change and I would leave a trail of false positives” (E&T).

On the contrary, Guy Clapperton believes that posting with real identities actually helps people to feel more responsible for what they post. In his article, he says “I never post anonymously and people can trace me back. What this means is that I have to think about what I am writing, and if I’m going to say something contentious then I have got to find some substance for it” (E&T) (5).

Although they hold two completely different positions in this debate, they both seem to agree that in cyberspace, anonymity and real-name system each have their own functions and should exist together. As a two-sided problem, a person’s right of anonymity need to be protected, however in some special situations, posting anonymously can be at our cross purposes.

Anonymity and Human Rights

Even though some people suggest that anonymity on the Internet “has to go away”(6), anonymous communication on internet helps support some fundamental rights like privacy and freedom of expression of human. These rights are recognized in constitutions, and both recorded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These fundamental rights are widely acknowledged to protect the extrinsic good of liberty, political freedom, self-determination, autonomy, dignity, power, and the ability to think and speak without censorship, surveillance, or retribution(7). To help establish a “people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society” (8), these rights, including anonymity, need to be protected or they will “go away”(6).

In the US Constitution and Supreme Court, the ability to speak anonymously was treated as one of the most famous signatures of democratic rights and made an indelible contribution to the spread of democratic rights. Not only in US but also in Europe, the right of anonymity was interpreted in a digital context by the Council of Europe's Declaration on Freedom of Communication on the Internet in 2003. In the article “The ethics of online anonymity or Zuckerberg VS Moot” written by Robert Bodle, he mentioned a good explanation of anonymity. In a report to the UN General Assembly, Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, writes “Indeed, throughout history, people’s willingness to engage in debate on controversial subjects in the public sphere has always been linked to possibilities for doing so anonymously”(9).“Anonymity,” he asserts, “is key to public participation and the functioning of an open and participatory democracy” and “a shield from the tyranny of the majority” (12).

Online anonymity also protects people from violences in real world, including vulnerable and marginalized populations. For instance, to protect themselves from repressive regimes, pro-democracy activists and journalists use pseudonyms anonymously on social network sites to interpret their views, which leads the social network sites become the major platforms for people to talk without worries. The loss of pseudonymity and anonymity in a public space like internet has chilling effects on undermines privacy, freedom of expression, and threatens people’s lives. Look over the past, History is made by those brave enough to speak out, despite the serious personal risks involved (10). To protect those braves and implement the right of freedom of speech, anonymity acts as an effective and cheap way to speak out against repressive regime and promote change. Yet, there is not a consensus about whether keep online anonymity exist or not. However, I believe in the consensus of the fundamental rights of human and expect everybody pay respect to these rights.

The power of anonymity and relative anonymity

Relative anonymity is not using your identity to voice opinions, but possibly a fake identity or an identity of a group so that individuals are not targeted. It is often used when artists are posting original works and want the public to know the works are connected, but not to be identified with an outside person.

In original works anonymity is used to not be judged by people in real life (13). The creators like to see what people think without risking their reputation and often have more critical comments and feedback on their work making it easier to improve. People like to be viewed as unique and in many instances cannot change their name in the offline work because of recognition. The internet is a place where people can express thoughts and opinions without affecting their personal image or be targeted due to harsh comments (14). With relative anonymity the anonymous can see what people think without risking their personal reputation.

While anonymity is used to share pieces of works it is also often used to bring people together. The power of anonymity can cause great amounts of change without any consequences for the writers. In an online setting activist can hide themselves from physical injury and the harsh repercussions. While relative anonymity cannot assure all the benefits of total anonymity it is nearly impossible on today’s internet to be completely anonymous. Almost all current anonymity is on the surface, and if personally targeted private information could be uncovered and connected to the writer’s public persona. Being able to be completely anonymous would foster more conversations and communication between groups of people and individuals. A case of this is with Wael Ghonim.

Wael Ghonim used a pseudonym to create an anonymous internet page on a real-name system through a proxy server. He created a revolution against the corruption in the Egyptian government. He wanted the government to end their mistreatment of citizens and take accountability. Ghonim planned to use the page to protest and organize dates and times to meet up without becoming a victim of the corruption himself. The planning ultimately worked out. Thousands got together in protest and started the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (15). While this plan almost did not happen due to the regulations of the forum he used, Facebook, which does not allow pseudonyms, and after being reported as the administrator of the page Facebook took down the page until another person risked their name and safety to keep the revolutionary page up. Not having the ability to be anonymous on this page put the administrator of the page at risk resulting in him being kidnapped and interrogated for 11 days. Ghonim stated "I basically thought that my anonymity was my power […] it was the reason this page was so powerful, a lot of people believed in what was there" (15).

Although these online writers may think they cannot be held accountable. This is just one instance in which it proves they can. This case also brings to the forefront that anonymity needs to be protected on the internet today, and without being anonymous the risks can outweigh the benefits of important issues that need to be changed. Anonymity leaves internet users with security a comfort that their information is not being distributed and monitored. It can protect their personal image to avoid public humiliation, and criticism.


One argument for keeping anonymity has to do with the repercussions that can be had from losing it. This is displayed through instances where people have been identified and tied to their internet personas or other personal information is revealed about them. On the internet this is popularly referred to as “doxing,” a common abbreviation for document tracing.(17) Over the years several popular internet personas have been identified by various sources, often by the media or someone going through a lot of trouble to do this. When this occurs it is usually very problematic for the person that is revealed, sometimes leading to them losing their jobs and other issues in their personal lives.

In the United States, doxing is actually legal. As long as no extra legal means are taken to get the information, then no crime has been committed. For this reason many websites have forbidden the posting of personally identifiable information and often ban users who disobey this rule. For example Reddit explains in their FAQ that they ban users who post such information to prevent defamation and vigilantism (21).

Another display of people’s information being revealed is data trading. The effects of not having anonymity restrict what the average computer user can do, and constrain individual’s ability to monitor how their own information is being used. All personal web searches and visited website are recorded by companies. This information help the companies classify types of people to get information to their target audiences. This starts with computer programs that trace the searches and other data bases to piece information about the user such as their name, address, and email. When anonymity is not protected skilled people can find individual’s data through doxxing or even buying personal information it from companies. (13) The brokers can find out all types of information from posts written and what people search and buy on the internet all this information is pieced together with an address that computer leaves behind making it possible to connect all the information the user puts into the computer. The average internet user does not know that this information is being sold to other companies to target groups of people. This inability to be anonymous compromises security of the users and makes it so that personal information can be bought and sold.

Popular Cases

In late 2012 a newspaper in New York State posted a map of several thousand registered gun owners and their addresses on its website. The map, titled “The Gun Owner Next Door: What You Don’t Know About the Weapons in Your Neighborhood,” received enormous outrage from the firearm community(18) who often value their anonymity. Many felt that it could be used as a list of houses to case in order to steal firearms from, and others simply felt that the information had no use as public record. The addresses were obtained legally through freedom of information act requests from local government (19), even though private information should be exempt from these requests as defined by the 6th exemption in the Freedom of Information Act of 1966(20). Since the information was obtained legally no action could be taken against the newspaper.

Another example, this one being much less clear cut, is the doxing of Reddit user violentacrez by Adrian Chen, a reporter for the website Gawker (Link to Gawker). Violentacrez was a “troll” or someone who posts intentionally offensive content in order to upset or anger people. He was in charge of moderating content on several perverse, racist, and sexist “subreddits” which are user made sections of the website devoted to particular subjects. There is no doubt that his actions were reprehensible, in fact one of the subreddits he moderated revolved around posting pictures of pictures underage girls without their permission or knowledge. The existence of a subreddit devoted to such undesirable material even prompted a ban such content.(22) That being said, the article Adrian Chen published not only revealed Violentacrez name and location, but also included that of his wife and son along with their usernames on the website.(23) It caused him to lose his job and his family also heavily caught in the crossfire. So even in this instance the question is, if his actions were terrible but not illegal should someone have the right to post their information online? Is there ever a case when doxing could be positive? The line may not ever be clear enough to warrant such action.

Anonymity and the Way Forward

In fact, anonymous communication has a significant place in our social and political discourse. Due to the worries about political or economic retribution, harassment or even threats to their lives(11), many individuals prefer to use pseudonymity online to hide their identities. While online anonymity may encourage the spread of freedom of speech, it also opens another door for someone to take part in anti-social activities. Thus, because lack of powerful control and accountability for one’s behaviors could encourage offensive, criminal, and immoral activities on internet, it is quite difficult to fight online anonymity. However, the price to abolish online anonymity seems too high to afford. As the explosive growth of internet users all over the world, anonymity has become a part of society and a traditional consensus for most internet users. But a standard rule for online anonymity does not exist. Current rules regarding online anonymity are not global, and they depend on the opinions of the website provider. For instance, Facebook requires an ID when new users try to register for an account, but many websites don’t need logins and identification. These different senses have existed until now. Thus, to separate the legal right with the illegal use of online anonymity, it is important online anonymity must be done as soon as possible. As a result of the controversy of online anonymity, US laws have established the right to Speak Anonymously on the Internet as well as right to Read Anonymously on the Internet. These laws ensure the principle of a free Internet and the right to free movement of information:
“People are permitted to interact pseudonymously and anonymously with each other so long as those acts are not in violation of the law. This ability to speak one’s mind without the burden of the other party knowing all the facts about one’s identity can foster open communication and robust debate.”(16) No matter how hard it is to defend online anonymity, the freedom of expression must be protected as the fundamental right of a human.

Work Cited

1. “Community Memory” , Mark Szpakowski, 04 November, 2004. Web. 01 July, 2014.

2. “A brief history of BBS systems”, The BBS Corner, 29 November, 2009. Web. 01 July, 2014.

3. “Real-name system”, Park Whon-il, 09 February, 2013. Web. 01 July, 2014.

4. “The Debate over Online Anonymity”, Ben Rooney, 16 Janurary, 2013. Web. 02 July, 2014.

5. “Should we have the right to anonymity online?”, Andrea Kates, Guy Clapperton, Web. 02 July, 2014.

6. “ Facebook's Randi Zuckerberg: Anonymity Online 'Has To Go Away' “, Huffington post, 26 Sep, 2011. Web. 1 July, 2014.

7. “ Declaration of Principles: Building the information society: a global challenge in the new Millennium.” 12 Dec, 2003. Web. 1 July, 2014

8. “ The ethics of online anonymity or zuckerberg vs. ‘moot’ “, Robert Bodle, May 2013, Web.1 July, 2014

9. “ Anonymity on the internet: Why the price may be to high? ”, David Davenport, April 2002. Web. 1 July, 2014.

10. “ On the internet nobody knows you are a dog”, Alexandra Cristina, April 25, 2014. Web. 1 July, 2014.

11. “ Do we have a right to online anonymity?” , Jeff Kosseff, Web. 1 July, 2014.

12. “ Anonymity on the internet must be protected.” , Karina Rigby, Fall 1995. Web. 1 July, 2014.

13. Kang, Ruogu, Stephanie Brown, and Sara Kiesler. Why Do People Seek Anonymity on the Internet? Informing Policy and Design (n.d.): n. pag. Carnegie Mellon University. Web. 2 July 2014.

14. Beckett, Lois. "Everything We Know About What Data Brokers Know About You." Top Stories RSS. ProPublica, 13 June 2014. Web. 30 June 2014.

15. "Wael Ghonim: Creating A 'Revolution 2.0' In Egypt." NPR. NPR, 09 Feb. 2012. Web. 01 July 2014.

16. “ The right to internet anonymity and legal implications.”, Pierluigi Paganini, 28 June, 2012. Web. 1 July, 2014.

17. "What doxxing is, and why it matters." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 2 July 2014. <>.

18. Haughney, Christine. "After Pinpointing Gun Owners, Paper Is a Target." The New York Times. The New York Times, 6 Jan. 2013. Web. 2 July 2014. <>.

19. "Newspaper Publishes Gun Owners’ Names and Addresses." ABC News. ABC News Network, 24 Dec. 2012. Web. 2 July 2014. <>.

20. "5 U.S. Code 552 - Public Information; Agency Rules, Opinions, Orders, Records, and Proceedings." LII / Legal Information Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 July 2014.

21. "Frequently Asked Questions." faq. Reddit, n.d. Web. 2 July 2014. <>.

22. "Clearing up rumors and hearsay as the Internet eagerly awaits the Gawker Reddit story." The Daily Dot. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 July 2014. <>.

23. "Commentary: DOXing is not okay. Ever. For anyone. - GeekWire." GeekWire. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 July 2014. <>.

Caroline Wilson

I really enjoyed this article on the triumphs and dangers of online anonymity. Before reading this article, I had never thought so deeply about something that I am an active part of (I have accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, and Imgur). I was completely unfamiliar with the violentacrez controversy on Reddit. I would, however, go into a bit more detail explaining certain terms to people. Readers may be unfamiliar with certain internet terms, such as doxing and subreddit. However, you did explain troll nicely. In addition, my only other critique is on a few typos and that strange "(link to Gawker)" bit. The construction and fluidity of this paper was wonderful! Much better than other group efforts I've seen. Maybe some more information on US online monitoring— although I'm sure it would be difficult to obtain the monitoring that really occurs. Overall- great work!

Christian Whitehead

I thought this article was very well written. The formatting throughout was good, and I could definitely see this being on the actual wikipedia website, very professional and informative. In this day and age, I think this topic is one everyone should look into, and felt it was a great choice for a topic to investigate and elaborate on. As this world becomes more and more about evolved in online communication and social media; not just in the United States but throughout the entire world, it is very important to understand the concept of online anonymity. With that being said, it is even more important to determine whether or not someone should be allowed to be anonymous when online, and for what reasons. Overall this was a great effort on the groups part, and I was glad I was able to read and learn more about such an engaging and ever-evolving topic.

Michelle Duong

The section “From Anonymity to Real-name system” talks about how Facebook provided a new mindset for future online transactions due to users being required to use their real identities. However, there were earlier sites that had a need for real identities such as MySpace. Moreover, although Facebook requires the usage of a real identity, there are many people that create fake accounts. This fact can be seen in the MTV show Catfish, where two hosts help people around the US figure out whether or not the person they are in an online relationship is who they say they are. If society decided to go in the direction of eliminating anonymity, people can still create fake identities on social sites and online messaging systems. Would that rule on the “realness” and non-anonymity of the system? And if the government decided to rule out anonymity, it would be nearly impossible for that law to be enacted because of first amendment rights. I like the fact that there is the option for anonymity and using your real identity. The option of anonymity should be used on articles and sites because it encourages opinions and provides a safe alternative for those who may have a differing opinion than the popular masses. Someone who posts a disagreeing comment on a serious subject matter can warrant a dangerous after affect of people who can be angry enough and passionate about that topic to go and physically harm the person. True, anonymity can also create criminal groups that meet up through anonymous chats, but I think that is a side effect that does not outweigh the fact that people can have their free speech and feel comfortable enough to post how they really feel. In addition, if the group was really bad, government agencies with advance computer technology can always track the IP address and where those comments were sent from if necessary (in cases they prove to be harmful to the public or puts in an endangerment of innocent people). Cases like those, national security triumphs free speech. Therefore, having both real-name systems and anonymity is the most optimal option to have. Overall, the proposal was good in terms of giving out the necessities and key arguments to educate the targeted audience.

Kasey Owen

This article was really well-written and informative on what sounds like a very important and pertinent controversial topic to not only American society but also to communities around the world. The article seemed to progress and flow chronologically and unfolded as the authors elaborated on the topic so that I felt like I had an adequate grasp of the subject by the end. While I understood the topic and the research question, I felt like the article often strayed too far away from the central question or didn’t seem to be taking any side on the issue. This inconsistency seemed to recover in the final sections, particularly the last line of the article, which summarized their viewpoints and conclusion on the issue and established their position once and for all. I think this article could be improved by firmly stating their stance on the issue throughout the article to guide the reader along and set a more firm tone about why the information provided in the article matters to their topic. There were also a lot of typos, basic grammatical errors, or repetition of the same phrases one after the other throughout the article that I feel could have easily been caught by proofreading the article or reading it aloud. The clarity and professionalism of this article could significantly be improved by fixing these minor but frequent errors. The article was fairly easy to follow and understand, but I feel that it could also be improved by further elaborating on technical jargon and website specific terms such as stating that BBS stands for “bulletin board system,” what a “110 baud modem” is versus a “1200 bit modem” and why this is significant, or what the process of “doxing” or document tracing is or entails. I think the article could also strengthen its argument by providing validation of and further explanation of its opposing factors, as it only briefly mentions cyber-bullying and digital stalking. Providing an explanation of and firm rebuttal to these arguments rather than just stating “however none of these should be the argument against anonymity” would be a great way to improve the article. Overall, this article seems to be very educational on the topic and covers a broad and comprehensive view of the topic, as well as provides specific examples to support the general claims and the thesis. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and found it quite thought-provoking in regards to the controversy surrounding online anonymity.

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