So, the campaign against online anonymity continues apace.

Yesterday, Jason Wilson outlined the problems that Google and Facebook have with anonymity and pseudonymity.

Facebook, which seems to regard users’ privacy as a minor impediment to its remorseless monetisation of personal data, opened another front in the campaign earlier this year with its facial recognition software. That’s actually illegal in some countries, like Germany. But even if Facebook turns it off, facial recognition software will, unless curbed, strip us of public anonymity. At last week’s Blackhat conference in Las Vegas, researchers demonstrated how the combination of facial recognition software, cloud computing and publicly-available data on social media sites like Facebook can allow profiling of individuals in a crowd. Yep, like Minority Report. Welcome to the Panopticon, as Tech Crunch’s Jon Evans suggested.

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Back online, anonymity has been under heavy attack for an extended period. Repressive governments from Tunis to Beijing have been using an array of tools to destroy the anonymity of online dissidents and disrupt their networks; frequently those tools have been furnished by western companies. That much one expects. But western governments have been on the attack as well against both online anonymity and privacy. The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement agreed at the end of 2010 requires signatory states to establish processes under which ISPs can be required to hand over all information relating to users suspected of “engaging” in copyright infringement; a similar requirement has already been imposed by United States on vassal states like Australia through free trade agreements.

The European Convention on Cybercrime goes further and requires the establishment of processes by which foreign governments are able to demand the preservation of user data, including emails, SMSs and voicemails, by ISPs and telcos. A bill aimed at child p-rnography currently before US Congress would go much further than current law and require ISPs to keep a full record of their customers’ details and activity for 18 months, though is considered unlikely to pass in to legislation.

This morning, iTNews reported the federal government is still considering imposing sweeping data retention requirements on ISPs and telcos to retain user traffic records for up to two years.

Don’t forget, in South Australia, there was even, briefly, a law that banned any political comment made online that was not accompanied by a real name and postcode. South Korea still has a very similar law for large websites.

That’s separate from the surveillance that goes on right now online in the US — earlier this year the FBI refused to reveal the names of American ISPs that continue to provide surveillance data on their customers, for fear it would make them flee in droves. Clearly the warrantless online surveillance by AT&T during the Bush years continues in another form in the US.

There’s considerable irony in the US government and private companies attacking online anonymity: as revealed by Anonymous’s Operation Metal Gear in the wake of the HB Gary crack, the US government is investing in a persona management program aimed at deploying armies of fake online personalities to influence social media. In this, the US government is merely following the lead of large companies that already deploy online sockpuppets to promote themselves and attack opponents.

Government and corporations have an unusual ally in this campaign against online privacy: many in the mainstream media — as News Limited has been demonstrating lately — have long railed against online anonymity, despite the media’s own uncertain flirtation with audience interaction via comments sections of websites. A persistent theme of mainstream media commentary is that anonymous online participation fosters aggression, lowers the tone of public debate and encourages cranks. But despite this high-minded affection for civil debate, newspapers still run unsigned editorials and continue the long print media tradition of pseudonymous or unsigned journalism.

In short, many of those opposed to online anonymity think it’s perfectly OK when they use it.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt — while admitting the company had been “mistakenly” collecting private data from its Street View program — made an interesting point last year, when he distinguished between privacy and anonymity in declaring that while the former should be protected, the latter was too dangerous to be tolerated “in a world of asynchronous threats”. Like the egregious Zuckerbergs, Schmidt used the terminology of law enforcement and security to justify attacks on anonymity, rather than being open that it is their companies’ business models to exploit personal data.

While Schmidt’s distinction between privacy and anonymity is an important one, it serves to misdirect the debate. Without anonymity, privacy is outside the control of the user, in the hands of companies like Google and Facebook, whose history shows a willingness to breach users’ privacy and whose business models are based on monetising personal information. Or it’s in the hands of governments, who have an incentive to use personal information for surveillance and control, and who have shown a willingness to even form illegal alliances with large companies to systematically breach users’ privacy.

The true distinction between privacy and anonymity from a users’ perspective is that privacy protection without anonymity relies on the goodwill of corporations and governments that have repeatedly demonstrated no such goodwill. In contrast, anonymity guarantees privacy and ensures the user can share as much or as little private information as they wish.

For internet users in western countries facing corporate campaigns to take their personal information and governments keen to increase surveillance and control, it is an important difference. For internet users living under repressive regimes, it is potentially the difference between life and death.

But Schmidt is also wrong because anonymity — not privacy — is recognised as a critical component of free speech, online or off. A frequently-cited discussion of the reasons why comes from the US Supreme Court’s decision in McIntyre v Ohio Elections Commission in 1995. Justice Stevens, speaking for the majority, suggested

“… the decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible … the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry … Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority … The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse.”

The reasons succinctly outlined by Stevens (even the Right’s favourite Supreme Court justice, Clarence Thomas, backed the decision) were also articulated by Hillary Clinton earlier this year when she announced State Department funding for a suite of online tools to enable anonymisation:

“On the one hand, anonymity protects the exploitation of children. And on the other hand, anonymity protects the free expression of opposition to repressive governments. Anonymity allows the theft of intellectual property, but anonymity also permits people to come together in settings that gives them some basis for free expression without identifying themselves. None of this will be easy … We should err on the side of openness and do everything possible to create that, recognising, as with any rule or any statement of principle, there are going to be exceptions.”

Powerful forces — governments, corporations, the mainstream media –are arrayed against online anonymity. But anonymity is a critical component of free speech even if, like free speech itself, it may be abused. Attacks on online anonymity are thus attacks on free speech, not just under repressive regimes, but in all societies.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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