Why online anonymity is vital in a healthy democratic society

We’ve come a long way in a year. The twelve month debate on whether anonymity online is helping or hindering democratic life has shifted, from calls for an outright ban on online anonymity as the best means to tackle online abuse to a growing understanding of the importance anonymous accounts are to vulnerable groups like victims of domestic abuse, the LGBTQ+ community, political activists and whistleblowers. But critically, we need to go further: a full, free and functional democracy depends on more than just a public and a private life, but the spectrum of spaces in between. 

Alan Westin, writing in the sixties, argued that democracy depends on maintaining spaces that allow different levels of privacy: places to experience varying degrees of observation, association and ways to express ourselves. Going into 2022, there’s a risk of polarisation in the debate around anonymity online that doesn’t leave much of Westin’s middle ground. There’s public – monitored by everyone, mined by a hundred advertising companies, immutable, etched into DeletedTweets.com, traceable back to you forever and ever. And then there’s private – dark, untraceable, totally free of observation by others, employing all the latest encryption technology and deleted moments after you hit ‘send’. 

Pushing everything towards one of these extremes means we lose that softer, more malleable sense of privacy and anonymity. Spaces where we move between differing levels of being known by those around us, where we can try thoughts and test out ideas while being able to set our own boundaries and not have to worry about whether or not this or that will be permanently attached to our name.

Previous research at Demos demonstrated that privacy in online communication should be thought of in degrees with no space being completely public or private. Anonymity and pseudonymity often serve as that middle ground. If I say something stupid at the pub, someone might overhear and take me to task. But the morning after it’s probably forgotten, I’m probably forgiven, and can reflect on whether I’d got things right. 

These are spaces to be cautious, spaces in which we can hold back when we’re not sure, or to change our minds and not have our past transgressions rubbed in our faces. We all have things we’d love to talk to other people about but aren’t totally sure we want to do it in a way that is committed to some kind of permanent historical record. There’s value in things being forgotten – even the things we say publicly – it allows people to grow and to change.

Thinking about online anonymity in this way makes it clear why anonymity and pseudonymity are often appropriate for online communication. Following Westin’s lead to take this middle-ground view of anonymity creates greater agency when interacting online. Through spaces where we can be – or witness others being – experimental with ideas or honest about our experiences help us to reflect and develop as individuals. You may be less likely to feel you have the space for the vulnerability required to fully help another person in a support forum, for instance, or pose a tricky question to a local representative if you fear embarrassment. Easily overlooked, we need these spaces to fully participate in society. They help us become ourselves more fully, the kind of selves that support a healthy democratic society.

Considering anonymity in this way is a step forward from how it is currently described in the draft Online Safety Bill. Welcome changes to the Bill now frame  “Anonymity and pseudonymity [as] crucial to online safety for marginalised groups, for whistleblowers and for victims of domestic abuse and other forms of offline violence”. In other words, anonymity is justifiable but only in extreme circumstances when there is serious risk of harm without it. It is vital that the Bill does protect people in such situations. However, the ability to access anonymity should be considered an important and normal part of everyday life available to everyone in the online world. 

Understanding anonymity as a natural part of being in public spaces helps us maintain an emphasis on tackling online abuse, rather than getting misled by a focus on anonymity as the problem. Creating mechanisms that tackle online abuse should not result in policies that cease to protect the level of anonymous communication that shapes our current experiences online. Ceasing to protect anonymity and pseudonymity risks resulting in a damaging restriction of what it means to communicate in a public place online.