Sunday, December 16, 2007

Online Anonymity: The Ring of Gyges Made Real

Online anonymity is something that people have widely come to assume is a necessary component of freedom online. It is frequently argued that without the ability to speak one's mind online anonymously, or to browse the internet secretly, that freedom would be curtailed. Myself and a growing number of other people think this is only partly correct: unrestricted online anonymity curtails freedom.

When it comes to browsing online, an argument certainly can be made for maintaining total anonymity. One example of the need for it that I've heard is that of people searching for information on such dread diseases as AIDS. If one were not able to search for information about AIDS in secret, many people who suspect they may have the disease might avoid doing so for fear of being discovered by the public (or closer to home, their community); the same would be true of people who do know they have the disease but who need more information and wish to keep their HIV positive status secret.

Typically, people extend this reasoning to posting one's thoughts online. Many maintain that without the ability to speak one's mind anonymously, many will not out of fear of retribution from others. An example often cited is that of whistleblowers, people who report the wrongdoings of corporations, politicians, etc. This is a valid point, and good in practice. But then people extend this consideration too far to cover online speech in general. That's when things go awry with the argument.

Something of this sort has been going on locally where I live for some time, involving the website of a local newspaper, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Their site has for a long time featured a comments function that allows the public to respond directly to articles published in the paper. In short, this feature has become a perfect example of why anonymity online does not equate to freedom, but frequently to the opposite of freedom.

On a blog I frequent, Right Mind, an associate of mine, Tom Forbes (founder of Palousitics), wrote about this phenomenon:

Tom: "Anonymity on the Internet does not lead to more free speech in the community as some claim. It leads to less. How many voices did the DN's Town Crier III series lose out on because people did not want to subject themselves to nameless character assassins? How many refuse to write letters to the editor for the same reason? It allows the anonymous few to intimidate the many. That is not freedom. It is tyranny." [Click here for the complete thread]

I posted to the thread an experience I had while teaching introductory philosophy at Washington State University. I was introducing my students to the works of Plato, and on one particular day we were reviewing the story of the myth of the Ring of Gyges:

"For [Gyges] was a shepherd laboring for the then ruler of Lydia and some part of the earth was shattered by a violent thunderstorm developing along with an earthquake and a chasm appeared at the place where he was pasturing. Seeing this and wondering, he went down and the fable says that he saw, among other wonders, a hollow bronze horse having openings, through which, peeping in, he saw that there was a corpse inside, as it seemed, greater than is usual for men, and wearing nothing else but a golden ring at his hand, that he took off before leaving. When time came for the shepherds to hold their customary assembly in order to prepare their monthly report to the king about the state of the flocks, he came too, wearing this ring. While he was sitting with the others, it chanced that he moved the collet of the ring around toward himself into the inside of his hand ; having done this, he disappeared from the sight of those who were sitting beside him, and they discussed of him as of someone who had left. And he wondered and once again feeling for the ring, he turned the collet outwards and, by turning it, reappeared. Reflecting upon this, he put the ring to the test to see if it indeed had such power, and he came to this conclusion that, by turning the collet inwards, he became invisible, outwards, visible. Having perceived this, he at once managed for himself to become one of the envoys to the king; upon arrival, having seduced his wife, with her help, he laid a hand on the king, murdered him and took hold of the leadership." [emphasis added]

I asked my students if they could identify the thing they all owned that gave them the power of Gyges' Ring and how it did so. Almost all of them immediately identified their computers and the ability to do things online anonymously as that device. Since this particular lesson was couched in a unit on ethics, I asked them to consider how the story of Gyges' Ring relates to how many people act online when given anonymity. The similarities were obvious: given the power of anonymity, most people turn into monsters.

And so it is with local goings on. As Tom pointed out in his post, many people are in fact intimidated online by anonymous thugs and free speech is curtailed, not fostered. There is also a tendency toward criminal behavior when given the ability to remain anonymous, as I've experienced personally in the form of someone masquerading as a medical professional for the purpose of defrauding people (who, thankfully, will soon be slapped around by the laws that have been broken). Far from being a guarantor of free speech, online anonymity is too often allowed outside of its truly useful contexts where it becomes a bull in a china shop. It is definitely time that online anonymity be reigned in.

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