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The Value of Anonymity


The value of anonymity, both on the nets and off, seems to be poorly
understood, even among its strongest defenders.  The positive value of
anonymity is not merely about protecting a few special groups such as
sexual-abuse victims and whistleblowers.  While these are certainly
valuable uses, if I believed that anonymity's positive impact were
limited to these outside-the-mainstream groups, then I probably
wouldn't accept the benefits of anonymity as outweighing its costs.

But in fact, I believe that anonymity has crucially important benefits
for nearly everyone.  There are several good arguments to be made, but
in the interest of brevity I'll focus on only one:

The explosive development of such personal data industries as targeted
marketing and consumer and demographic profiling, have demonstrated
that the business community considers personal data to be of great
economic value.  (There's a parallel observation to be made here about
governments, but I won't go into that now.)  There are also myriad
uses being made of personal data throughout the professions, from
labor negotiators to house burglars.  It is something of a truism that
anyone who knows enough about you can probably find a way to beat you,
either legally or illegally, often at great profit to themselves.

In an information-age society without extremely strong privacy
protections, the chief factor which makes the difference between
winners and losers may be how much information each of us has on
others, and how much they have on us.  Given this degree of economic
and social motivation, it is easy to imagine the sort of panopticon
which will soon arise on the Internet (and its descendants), unless
the strongest possible protections are adopted.  (And it is equally
easy to imagine who the biggest winners and losers will be.)

Relying on government to protect personal privacy is like appointing
the fox to guard the henhouse (or, as I seem to recall John Perry
Barlow once putting it, "... getting a peeping tom to install your
window blinds," or something like that).  In addition to the
government's own motivations for eroding privacy, all the above
economic considerations enter into government through lobbying,
desires to maximize tax revenues, fund-raising considerations, and a
whole raft of other avenues.

Furthermore, the only tools which government could bring to bear would
be a complex web of laws and regulations governing the circulation of
personal data.  Such laws and regulations would have to constantly
shift in a never ending cat-and-mouse game with business; and what's
more, many of these laws and regulations would necessarily conflict
with the free speech rights of private organizations.

Bottom line: Anonymity is the only available tool which puts control
over my own privacy firmly into my own hands, where it belongs, and
does so without infringing on anyone's freedom of speech.  Certainly
there are drawbacks, and anonymity may invite some abuses; but we have
survived anonymity's problems in the past, and 'tis better to suffer
in the hell we know than to be dragged into a new and hotter one.  The
only society without any crime is a society without any freedom.

My ($.02) conclusion: For preserving meaningful privacy, and for
preventing an ugly and probably irreversible transformation of our
world, anonymity is the best, perhaps the only viable tool we have.

					---  mkj

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