Last night some Norwegian friends and I had a long protracted discussion on the “right” or importance of online anonymity.
Since the mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was active in forums online and was inspired in part by other anonymous racists (such as Fjordman) there has been a question as to whether anonymity online should be curtailed.
Now it’s difficult to argue in light of what the murderer Breivik did. But removing online anonymity would not have prevented his acts. Removing online anonymity after Utöya will only damage the ability of a broad democratic discussion.
At this stage some argue that if you have an opinion you should (as in must – state it openly, not anonymously). The most commonly used cliché is that you have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide.
The problem is that the people who say: Nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide are safe. They live in reasonable comfort, security and normality. They may truly have nothing to hide. But the importance of the right is not to protect those who have nothing to hide – but to protect those who might be hurt for taking part in a democratic debate.
The right of anonymity – as with most rights – is there to protect those who are at risk. If you are not at risk then you may not see the need for rights.
A simple example is the rights of women. Why did it take so long for women to be given the vote? This basic right to participate in the democracy. Well, in part, those in power were men. These men could not see anything wrong with the system – or see any need for women to have rights.
Or why not the right to free speech? You do not need protection (which the right guarantees) to say nice things, you need the protection to say unpleasant things, to say things that people may not want to hear – but that need to be said.
Pointing out my good points requires no courage or protection – but also pointing out my good points, while making me happy, does not enable me to grow. Pointing out my flaws may make me less happy, and is more courageous (potentially dangerous and requires protection) but it gives me an indication of what needs to be done. It is more important for a society to hear about its flaws than its benefits.
Society needs to help and support those individuals who are about to be courageous. We need to have the arguments, discussions and wacky ideas brought to the surface. Anonymity is not the problem – the problem is when people are afraid of discussion because they may be sanctioned or harmed: socially, economically or psychologically.