by Declan Dunn, at TechViews.org …..
Discussions around anonymity online are typically dominated by those who abuse it to wreck havoc and abuse others.
The anonymizing web browser Tor is often associated with nefarious dark web drug dealers and criminals. But for many, the ability to hide their identity is essential to be able to function online. For example, it was revealed the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden used TOR to transfer documents and communicate with his supporters.
The risks of losing their job. Harassment. Threats against life and to loved ones. These are some of the reasons people gave for why they chose to use anonymizing software when working online in a new study, “Privacy, Anonymity, and Perceived Risk in Open Collaboration: A Study of Tor Users and Wikipedians.”
“If there are groups of people who feel vulnerable — whether because of their gender, or interests, or race, or ethnicity or something else — then we risk losing their participation,” said Andrea Forte, the study’s lead author.
Forte set out to examine why people who work together online — on Wikipedia, in open Blogs or discussion websites, on open source software, and on other collaborative projects — use software like Tor to cover and hide their true identities.
She developed a survey to investigate why people choose to use TOR or other anonymizing services. The overwhelming reason? To protect themselves.
One respondent feared about losing her job if her true political identity was tied to their real name. “I am conservative, a Republican … my boss…would rant for hours about this kind of person, that kind of person, the other kind of person, all of which I happen to be,” she (he) told Forte. “And I decided that if I was going to do anything [online] at all, I had best look into options for protecting myself because I didn’t want to get fired.”
One Wikipedia editor received death threats, and feared for his partner’s safety: “I pulled back from some of that [Wikipedia] work when I could no longer hide in quite the same way. For a long time I lived on my own, so it’s just my own personal risk I was taking with things. Now, my wife lives here as well, so I can’t take that same risk.”
Another editor for a popular Internet security discussion website noted, “Sometimes I post information that influential people may not like. I’ve had threatening responses from sources linked to the subjects of those posts. Now I post anonymously and help others to do the same.”
And another, a political activist, began using Tor after an associate was targeted by the authorities: “They busted [my friend’s] door down and they beat the ever living crap out of him… and told him, ‘If you and your family want to live, then you’re going to stop causing trouble.’… well, I have a family. So, after I visited him in the hospital, I started— I started shaking and went into a cold sweat. That’s when I realized I have to start taking some of my human rights activities into other identities through the Tor network.”
“If the Internet is going to be this vibrant place where people exchange ideas, where people build things together like software and encyclopedias, where open discussion about ideas can take place, where civic participation can thrive, then it has to be seen as a safe place for those activities.”
“The infrastructure of the Internet has evolved over time to facilitate increased control and surveillance.”, said Forte. “We like it when that infrastructure lets us have nice things like, say, credit card transactions or the exact location of our lost phone. But, unchecked, it can also hurt society when some people feel less free to speak than others because, for example, they feel in danger or that their views might be unpopular. That undermines the potential for the Internet to serve as a democratic forum.”
She refers to a 1995 ruling from the US Supreme Court ruling on the subject: “Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views … Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. … It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation…at the hand of an intolerant society.”
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