Proposition 35 And Why Anonymity Is Good For You

Activists wear Guy Fawkes masks during New Year's Eve celebrations at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday
Activists wear Guy Fawkes masks during New Year's Eve celebrations at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

This election day, a decisive majority of Californians approved a ballot measure called Proposition 35. The measure is meant to crack down on sex offenders. As well as stipulating harsher sentencing for those currently trafficking, the measure bans anyone on California's sex offenders' registry from having an online handle (i.e. any "email addresses, usernames and other identifiers used for online political discussion groups, book and restaurant review sites, forums about medical conditions and newspaper or blog comments") that's not government-registered. Cue loud relief that the measure passed and another familiar bemoaning of the fact that people, even dangerous people, are allowed to be anonymous on the Internet.

But there's a lot wrong with Proposition 35. For one, there's a lot that needs to be fixed about the California sex offender's registry. Along with truly dangerous predators who the public should be protected from, included on the list are victims of human trafficking, those arrested for the vulgarity of public urination and those arrested decades ago for the "public indecency" of being transgender or gay. Another problem: there's currently no easy legal way to change this list and to take people off it, something that ought to be handled before a lot of people turn over their screen names. Thirdly, it treats anonymity as something that should be taken away almost trivially -- which is, if not the most acute problem with this law, at least the most broadly troubling. We need to start thinking of Internet-enabled anonymity as more than just a cyberspace boogeyman. Anonymity, on balance, is good for us and good for the world. And on the Internet it should be treated as a right, not a privilege for the worthy few.

It's hard to think about, I know; new things are scary, and cyber-anonymity is new and strange and leads to many many ugly feelings. But when Tahrir Square failed to echo Tiananmen, I saw for not the first time the value of anonymity -- as a provider of opportunities, as a protector of the oppressed, as a catalyst to much-needed liberation. And as the suit against Proposition 35 by the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation shows, I'm not the only one who sees cyber-anonymity as a valuable resource, a resource that must, for the sake of the world, be treated not as a privilege, but a right.

In school I was geeky to the point of feeling like a social misfit. But in online chatrooms, storyboards and RPGs, I was home -- among people who would never know my race, my gender, my age, my bouts of insecurity, my inconvenient shyness, unless I let them. In real life, I felt stuck, unable to get past my own hangups. On the Internet I could be brave, because I could be anyone I wanted.

And it wasn't just me.

On the Internet, I met a friend I'll call "Jenna," a transgender female who first discovered she was female by "pretending to be a girl" on the Internet. Pretending to be the "wrong" gender is a tactic often condemned by people who dislike Internet-enabled anonymity, but fast forward a few years from when Jenna began "pretending" and she's now in university, better adjusted and with support networks she never would have gotten in her conservative hometown. Many of those support networks came from Jenna's "Internet friends," pseudonymous people who gave Jenna advice, love, enthusiastic encouragement, networking tips and the courtesy of the proper pronoun.

A lot of the crucial things we do in society are kept lawfully anonymous. Voting, for instance. Whistleblowing. Calling or manning a suicide hotline. In parts of the world where the law is not friendly to dissent, anonymity is even more important: this was emphasized to me by Libby Liu, head of Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit radio and Internet news service for Asia. "The reality is that anonymity is so important to people resisting oppression that one of the most debilitating thing a repressive government does to stifle free speech is to require real name registration [online]," said Liu in an email. "This is an issue near and dear to Radio Free Asia."

So why does Liu care so much? Because while people like the writers of Proposition 35 emphasize the dangers of "bad guys" being allowed to speak anonymously online, the dangers to discourse posed by even Twitter death threats are nothing compared to the dangers posed when powerful oppressors are allowed to silence the less powerful. And unfortunately, in the real world, the powerful are allowed to silence the less powerful all the time. Corporations punish union members. Governments arrest opposition leaders. Reporters are gunned to death, whistleblowers are intimidated, votes are bought, books are censored and boys-who-are-really-girls are forced to conceal that fact for life.

Anonymity has troubling consequences, yes. Real people are really harmed when some act out aggressions from behind the veil of anonymity, something known as the online disinhibition effect. Examples include teenage cyberbullies and Twitterers who send death threats to public figures. But anonymity is also a potent force for good in a world where might still often overpowers right because an anonymous truth-teller can't be threatened. No corporation can fire an anonymous whistleblower, no government can hold an anonymous dissident, no hateful hometown can stifle deviants among them if the deviants take different names on the Internet.

Look no further to the founding of our nation to see the clear value of anonymity. The Federalist Papers that inspired the ratification of the U.S. Constitution were published anonymously -- James Madison and Alexander Hamilton collaborated on them under the pseudonym "Publius." So was "Common Sense," the Thomas Paine pamphlet which helped inspire the American Revolution. The inspiration for the U.S. Constitution, John Locke's "Two Treatises Of Government," was published anonymously, as was Voltaire's controversial and contemporaneous Enlightenment-era fable "Candide." History is full of examples like these -- and full, too, of examples of the opposite, where hysteria and fear of anonymous discourse have led to censorship and repression. For examples of the latter, we need only look at the history of the postal service. Before the days of the Internet, the humble postal service was often a target of those who feared the anonymous.

Now we're facing a choice: we can be frightened of this new possibility and attempt to restrict it or we can take it as the scary gift it is and grow up enough to see ugly hatred as the price of ugly truth. Anonymity today functions as a tool for personal growth, as a carrier of cries for help and as a potent weapon in a world where the powerful too often oppress the powerless. The anonymous Internet may reveal our most disgusting prejudices, but give it some time, a Twitter feed and a march on Tahrir Square. Then it'll show you a revolution.