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On “anonymity”

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A familiar, but frustrating, observation was posted by cpinva in the thread below:

one comment: there is no such thing as “anonymity” on the internet. never has been, never will be. if someone really, really, really wants to find out who you are, they can. just as you can never “delete” a photo off the net, you ultimately can’t hide on the net either. your IP address can be found. depending on the skill level of the searcher, it might be found quickly or take a bit of time, but found it will be.

There’s an element of truth to this, but it’s highly misleading. Anonymity is, and always is, a social norm. There is no plausible context in which anonymity exists without social norms that support the respect of it. There is nothing unique or unusual about internet anonymity in this regard. The expression here suggests that any attempt to promote or maintain a norm of respecting anonymity on the internet is pointless, because it’s not capable of being technologically guaranteed. But again: the lesson here wouldn’t be to give up on anonymity on the internet, but to give up on anonymity in any social context in which its valued, for any reason, because of the possibility of breach.

In the real world of the internet, of course, anonymity is alive and well. Millions of people participate in it as a social practice, and a vanishingly small number of them have their anonymity breached. The norm is reasonably well supported most of the time. Norms retain value when they’re generally honored; no norm is universally respected in all cases but that doesn’t vitiate their value. That’s why Leiter’s behavior should be interpreted as a threat to anyone who values this norm, and why it’s important to push back against this kind of behavior. Norms retain their value and power when there are costs for violating them; costs Leiter has so far successfully avoided.

….cpinva notes below that (s)he meant the comment as one of prudence, rather than complacency. Duly noted; glad to hear it.

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