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Re: The Value of Anonymity


From: [email protected]
> 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.

These are good points.  However I think your presentation is a little too
oriented towards the libertarian perspective of distrusting government,
and also comes off sounding harshly competitive:

> 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.

I think most people don't think so much in terms of winners and losers,
of beating and being beaten.  Rather, I think it will be more acceptable
to couch the issue in simple privacy terms.  People do value their
privacy.  I don't think you have to overly justify the value of privacy.
A few examples of how little privacy people could actually have in a
non-anonymous network of the future should suffice to establish
motivation IMO.

> 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.

I like this phrase!  It nicely connotes the transparency of the nets.

> 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.

This is where I think you are getting too libertarian for a broad
audience.  Also, this wording invites the reader to assume that anonymity
will lead to tax avoidance and evading laws.  Most people feel that they
are paying their own taxes, and if others avoid them then it just
increases the burden on themselves.  So except to certain selected groups
I would avoid playing this angle up.  I think your next argument
will have wider appeal:

> 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.

Be aware that this is in fact the "mainstream" solution to the problem.
There was some discussion on comp.org.eff.talk of some kind of committee
headed by EFF board member Esther Dyson which issued a statement on
privacy protection in the nets.  They issued the by-now traditional call
for laws along the lines of "information collected for one purpose cannot
be used for another purposes".  Like, VISA can't sell data on your
spending patterns, at least not without telling you.  Nobody criticized
this point; even the relatively net-aware civil liberties types mostly
explicitly endorsed this provision.  Laws like this are apparently
already in place in Europe.  So the momentum is in exactly this

I think your arguments are good ones; the government would undoubtedly
exempt itself from such rules (the IRS is already starting to use
dataveillance and matching to look for discrepencies between tax returns
and spending patterns), plus such provisions would seem to require a
labyrinth of exceptions, special cases, etc.  Eventually I could see laws
telling exactly what a business can and cannot do with the names of
people who phone or net in for information; yes, they can be kept on a
list for up to 6 months and sent additional promotional literature,
except that the business must require standard form 11832 to allow the
customer to get his name off the list, which must be handled within 5
working days for businesses with more than 100 employees, etc., etc.  You
could have volumes of this kind of stuff.  I think Tim wrote some essays
a long time back pointing out the absurdity of this approach, especially
if you tried to apply it to private individuals.

> 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.

That's a good summary.  This is definately an uphill battle, though.  I
see no significant standards body or organization of influence (except
for CPs, to the extent that we have any influence) which is moving in
this direction.  Add to this the costs of anonymity as Wei has been
discussing and it really isn't clear how to proceed.


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