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Social, economic, and technological advances have dramatically increased the amount of information any individual can access or possess. Unfortunately, this has also brought about various challenges that must be addressed1. Generally, information is a vital treasure in itself, and the more one has the better. Having valuable, intellectual, economic, and social information creates enormous opportunities and advantages for any individual.
Even though information is a treasure, it can also be a liability. Besides constantly seeking ways to acquire, keep, and dispose of it, users of information also want to make sure that what is seen and heard privately does not become public without their consent. In the present technologically advanced society, a number of factors have contributed to the high demand for information and hence the need for anonymity, security, and privacy.
Increased public awareness of the potential abuse of digital communication, especially the Internet is one major concern for all stakeholders. To a large extent, most Internet users are concerned about privacy and do not want all the information they send or receive over the Internet to be connected to them by name2.
This paper presents arguments indicating that it is critical for governments to impose restrictions on Internet privacy. According to Kizza 3 anonymity refers to the state of being nameless or having no identity.
Since it is extremely difficult for anybody to live a meaningful life while being totally anonymous, there are different types of anonymity that exist including pseudo anonymity and untraceable identity.
Pseudo anonymity is where one chooses to be identified by a certain pseudonym or code while untraceable identity implies that one is not known by any name.
Anonymity and the Internet
For many people, anonymity is one of the biggest worries as far as using the Internet’s is concerned. The virtual world may make it easier for dissidents to criticize governments, for alcoholics to talk about their problems and for shy people to find love4. However, anonymity also creates room for dishonest people to pose as children in chat rooms and criminals in order to hide from law enforcers.
As such, Internet anonymity seems to cut both ways. According to proponents, preserving anonymity on the Internet may be the cornerstone of safeguarding privacy and a vital part of the constitutionally protected right to free speech. Critics have, however, argued that online anonymity permits people to affect others and not be held responsible or accountable for their actions.
In general, the use of the Internet has created room for individuals to operate in secret, without any one being able to tell who they are. In particular, the Internet provides two channels through which anonymous acts can be carried out. These are anonymous severs and anonymous users.
With advances in software and hardware, anonymity on the Internet has grown through anonymous servers. These may be full anonymity servers or pseudonymous servers. When full anonymity servers are used, it is impossible to identify the packet headers.
In the case of pseudonymous servers, pseudonyms are usually placed inside packet headers to conceal identity. In the process, the actual identity gets hidden behind a pseudonym and any packets received thereafter are relayed to the real server. Anonymity servers are able to accomplish this through the use of encryption5.
Other options are also used to allow users to adopt false names to hide their identity as they use the Internet. With false names, they can proceed to use message boards or participate in chat rooms without being recognized by anyone.
This has sometimes led to sensitive or highly personal information being posted to user groups, news groups, and chat rooms. In addition, popular protocols are also used to provide anonymity to the users. Generally, these protocols accept messages relayed to servers with arbitrary field information.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Anonymity
To some extent, anonymity may be used to curb bad behavior and to warn culprits that they are being watched. This contributes greatly to ensuring that everyone in the organization behaves appropriately. Although whistle blowers are sometimes controversial, they are reliable in a number of occasions such as when there is abuse of office and resources. Secondly, anonymity can be useful to those in charge of national security.
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It may be used by underground spies to gather useful information for national defense. Where there is intimidation and fear of punishment, anonymity may be used to reveal useful information. Anonymity is also good for strengthening relationships and the security of some people6.
One of the disadvantages has to do with the fact that anonymity can make it easy for criminals and fraudsters to commit crime. It can also make it difficult to access information that may be useful for settling disputes.
Controversies and Responses
Anonymity, according to its defenders, is a right protected by the American Constitution. In a notable 1995 case concerned with the distribution of anonymous pamphlets, the Supreme Court noted that anonymity is some form of a shield for individuals. Enshrined in law or not, the power to remain anonymous is often taken for granted by members of democratic societies.
Many authors have written controversial works using pseudonyms, politicians comment confidentially using generic titles like a spokesperson, and one of the first principles of journalism is never to divulge the identity of an anonymous source. It is important to note that anonymity is central to free speech and free speech is central to democracy.
According to Lambert7, anonymity can be a weapon that damages or destroys reputations. Defenders of anonymity are always concerned that the idea of anonymity on the Internet is regarded differently from any other kind of anonymity.
If the Supreme Court recognizes that anonymous books and leaflets are a justified form of free speech, the argument goes that Internet communication should be treated the same. Where anonymity is concerned, radio and television are treated differently from books because they are broadcast media.
They are not disseminated the same way and are harder to ignore. Although critics charge that Internet anonymity should be subject to special regulation, one of the basic premises of devising laws for the Internet is that they should be technologically neutral.
According to law enforcers, the Internet’s built in anonymity makes it a safe haven not just for whistle blowers and dissidents but also for criminals and terrorists. In November 2002, newspapers reported that the Pentagon had briefly considered and rejected an idea called e-DNA, which would have tagged natural Internet traffic with personalized makers.
Since human DNA is unique to every individual, DNA samples taken from crime scenes can often be used to trap criminals. In much the same way, the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hoped that Internet traffic tagged with e-DNA makers would be traceable to individuals and their computers. Had the plan not been scuttled, it would have outlawed most forms of Internet anonymity.
However, if anonymity is a cornerstone for democracy, as proponents allege, it would seem to be worth going to some lengths to defend. Apparently, this would require more than passing laws to protect Internet users who want to remain anonymous.
Ultimately, the recognition of the different kinds of anonymity might be necessary, followed by the treatment of the various forms of anonymity in different ways, including legal protection for uses of anonymity that are not connected to criminal behavior.
It may also be necessary to come up with ways to distinguish between those hiding behind their anonymity to commit crime and those using it for whistle blowing purposes. The distinction will help organizations to determine if it is necessary to allow anonymity in a given situation.
Strangely enough, anonymity may be complicated or simplified through the Internet given that communication via the Internet happens secretly and determining a user’s identity can not be done with absolute certainty.
As has been discussed in this paper, anonymity has its good and bad side. If left unchecked, innocent individuals in the society will be subjected to undeserved suffering. In a number of cases, therefore, it is necessary either for a local authority or national legislatures to pass laws that regulate when and who can use anonymity legally.
In the current environment of the Internet, there are serious debates on the freedoms of individuals on the Internet and how these freedoms can be protected when dealing with people on the Internet under the cover of anonymity.
Kizza, Joseph. Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age. Chattanooga, TN: Springer, 2010.
Lambert, Laura. The Internet: Biographies. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005.
Schwabach, Aaron. Internet and the Law: Technology, Society, and Compromises. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2006.
1 Joseph Kizza, Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age. (Chattanooga, TN: Springer, 2010), 23.
2 Aaron Schwabach, Internet and the Law: Technology, Society, and Compromises. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 45.
3 Joseph Kizza, Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age. (Chattanooga, TN: Springer, 2010), 24.
4 Laura Lambert, The Internet: Biographies. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 53.
5 Joseph Kizza, Ethical and Social Issues in the Information Age. (Chattanooga, TN: Springer, 2010), 31.
6 Laura Lambert, The Internet: Biographies. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 61.
7 Laura Lambert, The Internet: Biographies. (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2005), 65.