In the world portrayed in the Netflix film ANON (watch it tomorrow, May 4th, only on Netflix), privacy doesn’t exist. The government records everything you see and reviews first-person footage when de facto self-censorship fails to prevent a crime. While investigating a series of murders, a detective (Clive Owen) meets an elusive hacker (Amanda Seyfried) who has managed to remove herself from the grid. She turns the tables on him in the cat-and-mouse game that ensues, and he begins to question his devotion to the law.
We don’t yet live in a world where police can review what you actually saw instead of taking a statement, but the topic of anonymity, particularly online, inspires strong opinions that primarily fall into two camps. There are those who simply shrug and accept the fact that a data trail is an inevitability of modern life, and there are others who defend their right to remain anonymous online as an inalienable liberty, akin to freedom of speech. Some take extreme measures to protect their information, investing time and money into platforms that let them browse, buy, and behave however they want, relatively undetected.
So, what is the value of anonymity in an increasingly digital world? Below, we unpack a few of the ongoing debates about this timely topic.
Historically, there has been an unspoken agreement among internet users that some degree of anonymity is foundational to our brave new digital world. As anyone who experimented with chat rooms in the early days of the dot-com era knows well, pseudonyms have long been an established element of online communication. But in recent years, distinct ideological camps have emerged, sparking a debate about whether online anonymity is a good thing or not — and what, if anything, should be done to protect or eliminate it.
There are three buckets of ideological thought and ethical debate when it comes to online anonymity and privacy:
This argument pits the right to free speech against the right to information regarding who you interact with online. One camp argues that online, anonymity is a right closely tied to freedoms like the U.S.'s First Amendment. This group argues that pseudonyms and anonymity protect users from, for example, receiving death threats when they make a controversial comment on an online forum. They think there's something fundamental about the right to anonymity online — and they've got precedent on their side.
The other end of the spectrum believes that people who wish to express their opinions online should be required to put their name behind their words and convictions. This thought process is presumably rooted in the desire to hold internet users accountable, and to cut down on trolling.
There are serious ethical considerations to both arguments: What is the true role of anonymity on the internet — particularly as online society increasingly becomes synonymous with society at large? Does a user's intention factor into these decisions? And lastly, what role should governing entities take to protect both privacy and people?
Some governments have passed laws that lean to one side of the debate. For instance, the "right to be forgotten" has taken a spot in the cultural and political limelight in places like the E.U. and Argentina. Some legislation, such as the recently implemented GDPR, dictates that citizens have a right to request their personal data be erased from search engine results or social media sites.
Most people don't bat an eye when they're informed that a site or service may (read: will almost certainly) track some of their online behavior. For people on the less cautious side of this spectrum, sharing basic personal data is worth it for the perks.
In other words, some people are happy to sacrifice anonymity for the sake of convenience. For this group, something like easy late-night food delivery options are worth sharing data (such as their general location or city) with third parties.