Anonymity: worth defending


Autumn 2016 magazine cover

Autumn 2016 magazine cover

Anonymity is out of fashion. There are plenty of critics who want it banned on social media. It’s part of a harmful armoury of abuse, they argue.

Certainly, social media use seems to be doing its best to feed this argument. There are those anonymous trolls who sent vile verbal attacks to writers such as US author Lindy West. She was confronted by someone who actually set up a fake Twitter account under the name of her dead father.

Anonymity has been used in other ways by the unscrupulous. Earlier this year, a free messaging app called Kik was the method two young men used to get in touch with a 13-year-old girl, with whom they made friends online and then invited her to meet. They were later charged with her murder. Participants who use Kik to chat do not have to register their real names or phone numbers, according to a report on the court case in the New York Times, which cited other current cases linked to Kik activity including using it to send child pornography.

So why do we need anonymity?  Why does it matter? Why don’t we just ban it or make it illegal if it can be used for all these harmful purposes? Anonymity is an integral part of our freedom of expression. For many people it is a valuable way of allowing them to speak. It protects from danger, and it allows those who wouldn’t be able to speak or write to get the words out.

“If anonymity wasn’t allowed any more, then I wouldn’t use social media,” a 14-year-old told me over the kitchen table a few weeks ago. He uses forums on the website Reddit to have debates about politics and religion, where he wants to express his view “without people underestimating my age”.

Anonymity to this teenager is something that works for him; lets him operate in discussions where he wants to try out his arguments and gain experience in debates. Anonymity means no one judges who he is or his right to join in.

For others, using a fake or pen name adds a different layer of security.  Writers for this magazine worry about their personal safety and sometimes ask for their names not to be carried on articles they write.  In the current issue, an activist who works helping people find ways around China’s great internet wall is one of our authors who can’t divulge his name because of the work he does.

Throughout history journalists have worked with sources who want to see important information exposed, but do not want their own identity to be made public. Look at the Watergate exposé or the Boston Globe investigation into child sex abuse by priests. Anonymous sources can provide essential evidence that helps keep an investigation on track.

That right, to keep sources private, has been the source of court actions against journalists through the years. And those who choose to work with journalists, often rely on that long held practice.

Pen names, pseudonyms, fake identities have all have been used for admirable and understandable purposes over the centuries: to protect someone’s life; to blow a whistle on a crime; for a woman to get published at a period when only men did so, and on and on. Those who fought for democracy, the right to protest  and other rights, often had operate under the wire, out of the searching eyes of those who sought to stop them. Thomas Paine, who wrote the famous pamphlet Common Sense “Addressed to Inhabitants of America”, advocating the independence of the 13 states from Britain, first published his words in 1776 anonymously.

From the early days of Index on Censorship, when writing was being smuggled across borders and out of authoritarian countries, the need for anonymity was paramount.

Over the years it has been argued that anonymity is a vital component in the machinery of freedom of expression. In the USA, the American Civil Liberties Union argues that anonymity is a First Amendment right, given in the Constitution. As far back as 1996, a legal case was taken in Georgia, USA, to restrict users from using pseudonyms on the internet.

Today, in India, the world’s largest democracy, there are discussions about making anonymity unlawful. Our article by lawyer and writer Suhrith Parthasarathy considers why if minister Maneka Gandhi does go ahead with plans to remove anonymity on Twitter it could have ramifications for other forms of writing. As Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project told Index, “democracy virtually demands anonymity. It’s crucial for both the protection of privacy rights and the right to freedom of expression”.

We must make sure that new systems aimed at tackling crime do not relinquish our right to anonymity. Anonymity matters, let’s remember it has a role to play.

Order your full-colour print copy of our anonymity magazine special here, or take out a digital subscription from anywhere in the world via Exact Editions (just £18* for the year). Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship fight for free expression worldwide.

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Copies will be available at the BFI, the Serpentine Gallery, MagCulture, (London), News from Nowhere (Liverpool), Home (Manchester), Carlton Books (Glasgow) and on Amazon. Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship continue its fight for free expression worldwide.

The full contents of the magazine can be read here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”From the Archives”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”89160″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”″][vc_custom_heading text=”Going local” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]March 2011

If the US’s internet freedom agenda is going to be effective, it must start by supporting grassroots activists on their own terms, says Ivan Sigal.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”89073″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”″][vc_custom_heading text=”On the ground” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]December 2013

Attacked by the government and the populist press alike, political bloggers and Twitter users in Greece struggle to make their voices heard.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”89161″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”″][vc_custom_heading text=”Meet the trolls” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]June 2011

Whitney Phillips reports on a loose community of anarchic and anonymous people is testing the limits of free speech on the internet.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”The unnamed” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]The autumn 2016 Index on Censorship magazine explores topics on anonymity through a range of in-depth features, interviews and illustrations from around the world.

With: Valerie Plame Wilson, Ananya Azad, Hilary Mantel[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”80570″ img_size=”medium” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=””][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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India challenges cyber governance and security


Just days before the United Nation’s led Internet Governance Forum in Indonesia, India, held its own – and first of its kind – conference on cyber governance and cyber security.

With the support of the National Security Council Secretariat of the Government of India, the two-day conference was organized by private think-tank Observer Research Foundation and industry body, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, (FICCI). Speakers were from a host of countries including Estonia, Germany, Belgium, Australia, Russia, Israel, and of course, India.

It was ironic, that in a post-Snowden world, buried under allegations of the extent of the NSA’s spying, US officials were unable to attend the conference due to their government’s shutdown. Instead, other views took center stage, and India also visibly demonstrated the various positions its stakeholders take around the questions of governance and security.

Right at the kickoff, India’s Minister for Communications and Technology, Kapil Sibal, challenged the question of sovereignty and jurisdiction in cyberspace. “If there is a cyber space violation and the subject matter is India because it impacts India, then India should have jurisdiction. For example, if I have an embassy in New York, then anything that happens in that embassy is Indian territory and there applies Indian Law.”

India has, over the last few years, flirted with the idea of an UN-lead internet governance structure, and subsequently backed away from it. Minister Sibal said that India believes in “complete freedom of the internet”, however, at the same time needs to acknowledge that along with cyber freedoms come cyber gangsters, and the state and its citizens need to be protected from them.

India, with its 860 million mobile subscriptions (although, the numbers of users would be lower than this figure) is looking more and more to the internet as a delivery platform of socio-economic programs and a tool to boost the economy. That the internet can raise GDP by 10% is a much favored figure for those who promote the internet for economic reasons. The fact is that as the remaining unconnected population of India begins to acquire net connections through desktops and smart phones, the government is increasingly looking at security and surveillance over the internet as a necessary and inevitable route. This also means that the government needs to rely on industry to help them with this gigantic task.

The possible synergy between businesses and government in India was a central theme for discussion; as industry bodies asked the government to invest in training more cyber security specialists and also start moving towards uniform security standards and protocols. In fact, Indian industry most certainly wants to be relived of the financial burden of training personnel, and to an extent, investment in security R&D, and is keen to partner with the government to achieve both ends. Indian industry is often in the news because it appears almost universally under prepared for cyber attacks, both from within the country and externally. Suggestions of a government-led cyber awareness program were made as well, with calls to allocate funds for these exercises in the budget.

However, as has been the case in India, the real source of friction still lies between civil society and the government over the question of surveillance and monitoring. In a session entitled ‘Privacy and National Security’; perhaps the only India-centric panel of the entire conference, the debate became overheated. The panel consisted of a senior police officer involved in surveillance, India’s director-general of CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team), a representative from the mobile industry and a privacy expert. The government official was pushed by civil society members and journalists to explain the workings of the Central Monitoring System, still very opaque to the public, and later the official definition of privacy. He did neither. Unsurprisingly, India is yet to really define what privacy is, leading to simultaneous furor in the room and twitter (#cyfy13) about why this hasn’t been done as yet.

The sense in the room was that surveillance, while necessary to protect citizens, is only really effective when it is conducted in a targeted manner. Mass surveillance leads to self-censorship and is, in the end, counter productive. The other bone of contention was the question of identity, with the government making arguments that verifiable cyber identity is a possible solution to cyber crime. However, other participants found the issue troubling, as anonymity is necessary for a number of reasons, including as we have seen around the world, political dissent.

Finally, panelists discussed how best to inculcate a multistakeholder approach when legislating the internet. It was pointed out more than once that the internet was a product of private enterprise, made on open standards and principles, but now governments are attempting to control this resource. However, while public calls for multistakeholderism were made for many reasons; human rights, protection of privacy and even to benefit business in the long run (as they would not risk being caught up in lengthy court cases in the future if they took civil society on board from the start), there was still an elephant in the room. Offline, many official participants wondered why Chatham House Rules were not observed, or why there were no closed-door meetings only for government officials. It was clear that much of the weighty – and honest – discussions still don’t involve the public. Perhaps not where the question of governance is, but certainly when the question of security is.

Ultimately, there are two broad outcomes of this conference. The first is that India has indicated its willingness to start shouldering discussions to do with the global cyberspace. The other is, as India’s National Security Advisor put it, — ““India has a national cybersecurity policy not a national cybersecurity strategy.” This is certainly a start to building a consensus for that strategy.

This article was posted at on 25 Oct 2013.

Online attacks: What threats do women human rights defenders face?

Human rights activists inevitably face harassment both on and offline, and this effect is magnified by the topics tackled by women’s rights activists. Discussion of deep-seated taboos sparks heated debates across the globe.

The Association for Progressive Communication (APC) recently released a report exploring the kinds of threats that some women’s rights activists face online. APC surveyed 40 activists working across the globe, as part of their ongoing efforts to use technology to battle violence against women online.

The greatest fear for respondents was the possibility of private information being shared online without their consent, while 90 per cent of Spanish-speaking respondents expressed fears over the security of social networking sites. English speaking respondents were also more likely to report harassment online over Spanish speaking ones, but this could do with English being more widely used online.

The report looked at the kinds of threats the activists have faced as well as the kinds of training that activists feel they need:

Analysis of threats faced by surveyed WHRDs  | Association of Progressive Communication (APC)

APC is also working on a more long-term project documenting and fighting against violence against women online — whether that is cyberstalking, surveillance, or manipulated images. It’s important to examine gender-specific obstacles to free speech both on and offline.

More on this story:

Women and free speech

Sara Yasin is an editorial assistant at Index on Censorship

London 2012: Spy games

Sport on TrialWith the security apparatus in place for the London Olympics, due to begin next week, Katitza Rodriguez and Rebecca Bowe look at how intense surveillance can threaten privacy long after the games are over