The Internet is aflame this week (even more so than usual) in the aftermath of two very high-profile incidents which have once again thrown the spotlight on issues of online privacy. I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about: Amanda Todd’s suicide and its aftermath, and the “outing” of Michael Brutsch (a.k.a. Violentacrez). Even Mittens’ latest social blunders haven’t distracted us entirely from the discussion and debate that has ensued.
The real question, the one that has kept people talking (and it’s something that’s come up before, and will certainly come up again), is this: what expectation should we have of online privacy, and how does one preserve one’s anonymity in the face of a world where all of our online doings can be traced and collected?
The short answer, of course, is that no one gets to be anonymous. Every action, every word: whether online or in “real life”, we must own our own behaviour and be answerable for our own actions. What we do and say can always come back to haunt us, and on the Internet everything is recorded — it’s like living your life in front of a video camera.
Of course, on the Internet we do have the privilege of anonymity, to some degree, simply because so much of the time? Absolutely no one is watching what’s being recorded. What websites we visit, what we search on Google, what porn we download — most of the time, nobody really cares. The information is recorded, there to be found by anyone who searches, but searching takes an effort, and for most of us? The fact that looking us up takes work is enough to maintain our fragile anonymity. The same is true in real life — while someone easily could be following our every movement, watching our every action, does anybody really want to go to so much trouble? Unless you’re some sort of mega-celebrity with the paparazzi hounding your steps, the answer is very likely “no”.
There are ways to increase the difficulty factor involved in that search, of course. Using pseudonyms, shielding your IP address, protecting your passwords and Internet behaviours from people you know in real life, taking care that the online identities you use from one website to the next are not immediately traceable to each other. You can be discriminatory in what information you talk about or share at all online (for example, by never posting photos that show your face) — these are all legitimate strategies. They take additional effort on your own part, and are not insurmountable obstacles (nothing can completely shield you all the time), but increasing how hard it is to trace you can be enough to deter a casual searcher with not much to prove or to gain by figuring out just who you are and what you do on the Internet.
There are those, of course, who believe that nothing should be hidden. On this point I have to disagree: while I am an advocate of honesty in most every sphere of life, I also understand that concealment and deceit are not necessarily an indication that you are doing something wrong, and there are things that we all keep private (most of us probably don’t detail our sex lives to all and sundry, for example, or tell all our friends about the intimate details of the bout of diarrhea we suffered through, or tell the people at work what we really think of them and their stupid and annoying little habits). We all have personal lives and private feelings.
But we’re not entitled to them.
Privacy is not an unalienable right. It’s a privilege, one maintained mostly through a general sense of social propriety and politeness. And it’s something that we can lose at any time, often through no fault of our own (try having a serious medical issue some time: an extended hospital stay will let you know just how much of your life is *really* private). We have no legal protections from those who might choose to seek us out and invade our most intimate secrets, because knowledge cannot be copyrighted or owned.
Unfortunately, knowledge can also be used to harm. While I have no sympathy whatsoever for someone like Michael Brutsch, who has reportedly lost his job (among other things) in the wake of his being “outed” as the man behind such Internet horrors as the “creepshots” and “jailbait” subreddits, I can still feel disgusted at humanity when the man is facing threats of death and violence. He deserves to be ostracized, judged harshly, and treated accordingly, but violence is never a justifiable response to anything, and the people who would make such threats are truly no better than he is. But at the same time, he at least can be said to deserve the negative reactions to his actions — he has admitted to deliberately “trolling” for negative reactions, and shouldn’t be surprised that those reactions have been extreme, because extremity is exactly what he aimed to provoke.
Where I feel a lot more sympathy is with people who need Internet anonymity in order to be able to speak safely about the topics they tackle. People like Orac, Bug Girl, and other pseudonymous bloggers: they are required by their jobs to maintain separation between their Internet personas and their professional ones, and a pseudonym allows this (even while it does not provide 100% protection for their identity, and determined searchers are still able to — and sometimes do — find them out). Others use pseudonyms for more concrete forms of safety: those who criticize certain political or religious groups, for example, may be putting their lives at risk by doing so, and an extra level of difficulty in finding out one’s identity may be a very prudent step to take in that sort of scenario.
The other facet to the current discussion is, of course, just how easy it has become for a bully or a troll to ruin someone’s life by spreading false information through the medium of the Internet. Something as simple to create as a phony Facebook account can cause a person untold amounts of social strife, and how do we protect against this?
Well, the same way we always have. There are already laws against character defamation, libel, and slander. There are laws against harassment, and against uttering threats. We don’t need new laws to police the Internet — we just need to educate people on their rights and on how to deal with such attacks. If a troll or a bully is harassing you, you can report them to the police. If someone is saying false things about you, you can sue them. Even if someone is using true information (as in the Amanda Todd case), but they’re doing it in such a way as to harm you, you can take legal action against them and stop them being able to attack and hurt you.
Don’t know who the person is? That doesn’t matter. Because as we’ve already established, everything on the Internet is traceable. Even if you’re not computer-savvy enough to hunt down a troll, other people are. The authorities have resources in this regard, and they can find out a person fairly easily. Lack of anonymity is a double-edged sword, and when you’re the victim? You can use it in your defense, as well.
In the end, the best thing a person can do to protect themselves from losing their online anonymity is just to simply be blameless. Don’t do things online that you wouldn’t do in real life, or draw attention to yourself through bad behaviour. Don’t use anonymity as a shield, because it’s a very flimsy shield — like Wiley Coyote hiding under a tiny umbrella to ward off a falling boulder. If you’ve got serious concerns about hiding yourself (if you’re using the Internet as a medium to distribute a message that might get you shot in the head by the Taliban, for example), seek real-life ways of protecting your person and your safety, as well as using the tactics I outlined above (pseudonyms, hiding your IP, no photos, etc), because to rely solely on Internet anonymity is foolhardy.