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Anonymity on the Internet Must Be Protected (1995) (mit.edu)
146 points by stareatgoats 60 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 71 comments



> Freedom of expression must be allowed. With this freedom comes all sorts of problems, but these types of problems are not unique to the internet. Unpopular speech is a necessary consequence of free speech and it was decided long ago, during the drafting of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that the advantages of free speech outweigh the disadvantages.

It seems as if there are a growing number of people that no longer believe this statement. It's unfortunate and I never thought I would see free speech be devalued (in the US), but I regularly see calls to restrict speech.

I agree with this paper that anonymity must be protected, but I worry that current and future generations will continue to move away from these principles in the name of inclusion.


Using any of the big tech firms, they are actively moving against freedom or anonymity on the net, specifically the web..

https://thehill.com/policy/technology/411002-leaked-presenta...


And a great example..

Look above, comments from Josh Cole... bots control the internet.. only regulation, govt censorship, and censorship by tech companies can save the uneducated, unwashed masses which could never understand or be left to make their own decisions with regard to the web and information contained therein..

I always get a chuckle from those who have such arrogance and avarice, that only the govt can fix societal ills. It's horrifying. Experts...


I did not say bots control the internet. I did not say that only regulation can deal with the problem. I did not say tech censorship is the only way to save the uneducated. I did not say the unwashed massed could never understand anything.

Please don't lie about what I said.

I said that the argument against, written in 1995, does not reflect the reality of the day. A reality which is producing said regulation and policy change, right now, already, in California. I'm talking about things that happened. I said that this topic wasn't accurate for modern day - that the speed at which technology has progressed has left this post dramatically out of date.

Maybe you've forgotten, but Facebook and Twitter didn't even exist in 1995. Back then the internet was far more decentralized.


> The “utopian principles of free speech,” as Google describes it, are now being compromised by bad actors and difficult situations.

It's funny that Google would frame it like that, because here is an article from 1995 clearly stating that you can expect trolling to come from freedom of speech. This was a known issue with the internet from the get go. It's just that since society has become ultra-political that points of view from "the other side" has gone from being obnoxious to being something that must be wiped off the face of the earth, by force if necessary.


I think the 'marketplace of ideas' at least insofar as embodied in various internet outlets is what is failing and causing people to think that some speech is bad and should go away, due to the bullshit asymmetry principle and successful personal-hate targeting campaigns.

During the founding of this country we probably had trolls too, but its easier to regain a pleasant town square when the troll has to directly, physically, face the consequences of his free speech.


All of this was happening on Usenet to a much greater degree than anything I've seen on social media. That's where the term "don't feed the trolls" came from (still the best advice!).

The goal of free speech is not to create a "pleasant town square", it's to protect individual liberty and not allow powerful entities to control what can and cannot be communicated.


This is actually a common misconception. The goal of the Constitution is to not allow the government to control what you can and cannot do. This is because the Founders, rightly, felt that the government is what we really need protection from.

I have some pretty unpopular opinions because of my support of this Constitutional underpinning. For instance, I think that there is nothing wrong with exclusive country clubs. Or hoisting Confederate/Nazi flags on private property. Or even kneeling during the anthem. Etc.

Our government does not stop any such activities. (And if they did, I would consider it an act of governmental overreach on the level of treason against the Constitution.)

Now from the other side of it, if that exclusive country club does not want me on their grounds, that does not restrict my activities. I don't have any rights that impinge the rights of others. That is, the country club does not have to give up its right to be exclusive, because I want to go eat there.

My rights, shouldn't trump anyone else' rights, but I believe my rights should almost always trump the government's rights. And my honest belief is that that's how the Founders saw things as well.

That's the way I think things should work.


Which works great when you have a decentralized internet with a million separate sections where people with different views congregate with their own community moderation policies.

But when it comes to YouTube or Facebook, no moderation policy is appropriate because there is no single set of community standards for all users. When you have more users than most countries have citizens, you're acting in the role of a government.

Obviously the best solution to this is to get back to a decentralized internet where no one site has more than 5% of the total users, but in the meantime the big players shouldn't be censoring anything. And if that so happens to make them less competitive against smaller sites without so many users they're expected not to restrict anything -- good.


>But when it comes to YouTube or Facebook, no moderation policy is appropriate because there is no single set of community standards for all users...

There doesn't have to be.

In my view, YouTube and Facebook, are private property. It's like the example of the exclusive country club. I can't argue that the country club is big and has all the best restaurants, so they have to let me in. It's their club.

Or perhaps a more analogous example. What happens a lot up here in Wisconsin is that some families sit on a lot of land. Needless to say, during deer season, there are a lot of people who think they can just go on that land to hunt. But that's not how it works. I don't like it. I'd like to hunt on some of that land. It's all of the best spots being monopolized by one family, but it's THEIR property.

My right to hunt doesn't mean that all of a sudden they don't have a right to their land. It's their land.

Same with YouTube. Go to another video streaming site. Or start your own. But you don't get to tell YouTube what to do with their video streaming site.

Your right to speak freely is not impinged at all by them precluding you from their site for instance. Any more than my right to hunt is impinged by a certain family, that shall remain nameless, not sharing their land.


There is a difference between having a lot of land and having all the land. There is also a difference between recreation and constitutional rights necessary for the successful operation of a democracy.

If someone has a thousand times more land than the average person, but still only 5% of all the land, they have no obligation to share. If someone has more than half of all of it, it's antitrust time and different rules apply.


But no one's constitutional rights are violated by a guy owning land, or indeed, by a guy owning a video service.

You don't like his service, use another. YouTube doesn't own all of the video streaming services around. Not even close.

All your arguments just don't apply to the case you're trying to make. YouTube doesn't own all the video streaming services. And the government doesn't restrict your right to speak freely outside of YouTube.

So where is the necessity to speak on YouTube coming from?

You haven't presented an argument that would, in any way, support abrogating our social compact of private property.


> You don't like his service, use another.

Sure, all you have to do is get all your viewers to switch from Facebook/YouTube to something else. Which you have no real control over, hence the problem.


But that's not a problem with YouTube.

YouTube is not forcing your friends to use YouTube, and neither is the government. Your friends can easily view your video stream on any other service.

So "but my friends won't use Twitch instead", is not really a legitimate reason for us to abandon our belief in private property. Sorry.


> YouTube is not forcing your friends to use YouTube, and neither is the government. Your friends can easily view your video stream on any other service.

If this were true, why isn't it what actually happens? Why is there a single dominant YouTube with majority share rather than dozens of competitors none of which has more than a single digit percentage of the users?


>If this were true, why isn't it what actually happens?...

Presumably because YouTube is better? Or maybe just easier?

I'm not an expert. I couldn't tell you.

But what I can tell you is that it's NOT because the government forces everyone to use YouTube. It's not even because YouTube forces everyone to use YouTube.

If someone starts forcibly preventing you from using, say, Twitch, then give me a call. I'll be the first one to agitate for getting that restriction removed. But if you and every one of your friends are free to use whatever you like, and you're choosing to use YouTube. Then there is no real problem to be solved.

What it sounds to me like you're asking for, is for us to effectively confiscate someone else' private property because you kind of like it. Well I'm sorry, but this is not Cuba. That's just not how things work here. Here in the US, the principle of private property is held sacrosanct. It takes a lot more than what you've put forward for us to go confiscate and nationalize someone's property.

There are plenty of video streaming services. Your issue is that you don't want to use the others. That doesn't make YouTube a problem. The problem is that you don't want to use the others. And that's not a problem that the Constitution or the government should solve for you.


You keep talking about government and property but the issue is antitrust. The government never forced anybody to buy their fuel from Standard Oil but the government still rightfully broke them up.


Because you couldn't buy fuel any other place.

But you CAN view live video streams at numerous other places.

This is the difference that's glaringly obvious to everyone else, but somehow seems to escape you. DailyMotion exists. Twitch exists. Vimeo exists. Facebook video exists, and is actually larger than YouTube. (by megabyte stored.) Twitter video exists. Instagram video exists. Snapchat video exists. The list goes on and on.

You have to have a monopoly, to break up a monopoly. YouTube doesn't have a monopoly. You, presumably, just like their property more than Twitch or Instagram video or whatever. So you want to use YouTube.

Fine. I get that.

But that's a 'YOU' problem, not an 'US' problem.


Microsoft didn't force anyone to use Windows/Office/IE in the 90s. There were other choices. And yet they were hit by anti-monopoly lawsuit. Why? Because they had enough market captured to undermine any serious competition. Google is in a similar position right now.

Also, if you view YouTube as merely a video hosting service, you're completely missing the point. It's the second largest search engine on the web.


> Obviously the best solution to this is to get back to a decentralized internet where no one site has more than 5% of the total users, but in the meantime the big players shouldn't be censoring anything. And if that so happens to make them less competitive against smaller sites without so many users they're expected not to restrict anything -- good.

i would like to see governments take more of a black/white stance toward "safe harbor" protections. if you need to moderate for the bottom line, you can do it, but this should come with additional liability.


Then nobody would do it.

It isn't bad to have moderated spaces as long as they're actually run by individual communities and not amalgamated general purpose platforms imposing one party's views on everybody else.

As soon as you impose liability you go from moderation as a mechanism to weed out malice to essentially an editorial board that has to pre-approve everything as officially sanctioned by the platform. It excludes an important middle ground.


Yes, you're right, as long as it's not the government's boot grinding my face into the pavement, then everything is fine.


>troll has to directly, physically, face the consequences of his free speech

That's not free speech.


That is exactly free speech. A right to express an unsavoury view without the system punishing you.

Never gave you a right not to be ignored by your neighbours, or not banned from the bar, or not having others nudge their friends to make sure they notice and avoid, etc. Free speech almost always came with consequences until the internet age.


Free speech to be really free must be free of consequences. This also requires a rational, mature audience. The fear of consequences will not allow free speech to exist.

Preaching Bible can offend my atheist neighbor. My neighbor's blasphemous speech can offend my religious sentiments. There can be no end to this. In effect, no one will be free to speak their mind.


Reminds me of a New York comedian I heard who said something like, "I discovered that in the South, guys don't give any warning before they punch you."

It is like that where I grew up in the Midwest, too. Knowing that there will likely be immediate physical consequences for inflammatory speech is a great way to limit that kind of behavior. Unless, of course, it's Saturday night and you're mildly drunk and looking for a fight.


>"I discovered that in the South, guys don't give any warning before they punch you."

That's not free speech. That's silencing what you don't like with violence.


Actually, the guy got punched for insulting someone. He went on to talk about how in New York there would have likely been some warning first. So yeah, insults and name-calling comes with immediate consequences in real life. I think that's acceptable.

I'm not advocating public violence to limit speech or "de-platform" people. We have too much of that already. Rather, the point was to contrast the kinds of things people will say online that they would probably not say in person.


> Knowing that there will likely be immediate physical consequences for inflammatory speech is a great way to limit that kind of behavior.

it's also a great way to limit unpopular political speech and marginalized people taking up public space. "gay bashing", for example, is still a thing that happens to some of my friends.

unless we can count on people to only administer beatings to the right folks, i don't really see how you can have it both ways.


>it's also a great way to limit unpopular political speech and marginalized people taking up public space.

It's also a great way to defend unpopular political speech and marginalized people. The civil rights and gay rights movements used the same means of inflicting social and physical consequences against the status quo that its defenders used to defend it.

Speech doesn't exist in a vacuum completely separate from the universe of physical consequence, it never has.


No, the civil rights movement almost always was at the mercy of those willing to commit violence and kick people out of businesses. Your ideas about how people can kick you out of businesses and punch you if they don't like what you're saying benefit only those with power.


>Your ideas about how people can kick you out of businesses and punch you if they don't like what you're saying benefit only those with power.

They're not my ideas, and they don't benefit only those in power. If that were true, no protest, union or revolutionary movement of any kind would ever have been successful. The paradox of tolerance[0] is a real thing.

[0]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_tolerance


???

I'm not trying to get in the middle of your guys' argument, but I have a serious question.

Why does a troll being anonymous or public, make his speech any more, or less, free? (Assuming that soldiers or police, or Saudi Intelligence Agents, aren't coming to drag said troll away.)


> That's not free speech

That is, in fact, the definition of free speech.


Back when I had the freedom (or naivety and luck) to discuss far more controversial topics, I found that everyone wanted to ban free speech. Normally they would come up with some justification of why the particular speech doesn't count and claim they did stand for free speech and how dare I say that $controversial_topic dare count as a form of speech. While some people had far wider definitions of what doesn't count than others, I found a topic that they all agreed upon.

I would even go as far to suggest you would probably agree with them, at least for the most common form of speech I saw people wanting to ban. Think of the worst image you can that someone could share or possess.

Once we agree that some speech can be banned, or even that we can just declare certain things don't count as speech, we set the precedent that limits on free speech are acceptable.


Even more inexplicably, calls to eliminate free speech on the internet are usually advanced by the people who actually need it the most.


We live in a different country now. Humanities programs did their jobs


Not sure what you mean. Care to elaborate?


I'm guessing, but I suspect that cft means that humanities programs (at universities) produced people who do not value freedom of speech (or, slightly more charitably, who value other things more, such as preventing speech that offends or triggers people).

Presuming that I understood cft's point, I'm not sure I buy it. True, some of the humanities people seem less committed to free speech than one would wish. But they are hardly the first to be so. Personally, I'm not sure that there are more voices in favor of censorship than there ever have been. It' may just be that, like every other viewpoint, those calling for it can get really loud in their own echo chamber...


When "speech" includes dox'ing, life-ruining harassment, Russian propagandists, etc, perhaps we conclude that "speech" does have shades of grey after all.

Just as we already decided long ago, not long after drafting the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, when we determined that it was not OK to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, and that sharing state secrets with the enemy, while technically a form of "speech", was still treason.


You're mixing several things.

Threats and legitimate harassment are illegal in the US. No further action needed there. Just call the police if you're in danger. Platforms are legally obligated to work with the authorities and remove illegal content.

"Russian propagandists", is a partisan issue and definitely something that free speech should help protect. I'd say this strikes at the heart of the issue actually. People can accuse those they disagree with of being "Russian" or "bots" then get them censored. Free speech stops this from happening.


> "Russian propagandists", is a partisan issue

It's not. No party in the U.S., or in any country, supports propaganda from foreign powers, and there's not much debate whether it exists; evidence of their activities is deep and wide. The Russians wish it was partisan.

There may be debate over which things on the Internet are the products of Russian propaganda, but that's the nature of effective propaganda - only the crappy stuff is obvious, and the effective propagandists want everyone arguing with each other.


But are you sure about that?

https://news.gallup.com/poll/237137/republicans-positive-rel...

That is the raw data.


The (partisan) debate is whether it matters or has/had any meaningful influence, especially compared to the societal costs that come out of any attempt to "fix" the problem. They are the new terrorists, druggies, communists, insert-generational-bad-guy-to-legislate-against-here, etc.


I particularly liked this line:

> React to the anonymous information unemotionally. Abusive posters will be encouraged further if they get irrationally irate responses. Sometimes the most effective response is silence.

For every case of abuse, there are more cases of good use of a service and we should focus on those and not let the malicious ones become the loudest.


Yup, there's a reason one of the internet rules of yore was "Don't feed the trolls"


I never understood how this was supposed to work.

Any space where abuse was allowed rather than moderated, the space just became dominated by the abusive and they would overtake the space.


Yep

Internet is a strange place right now, much different from what it was

Don't feed the troll was born on the premise that abusers were a minority and that anonymity was protecting the good guys from the bad guys

Today anonymity protects the bad guys from being prosecuted


Got it.

Now your anonymously accessible forum greets newcomers with the most abusive, disgusting posts imaginable sprinkled with the occasional post of an idealistic cypherpunk who abides by the dictum, "Don't feed the trolls."

Predictably, the forum is frequented by no one outside of a handful of idealistic cypherpunks and problem even fewer trolls (because it's cheap to saturate a forum with the most vile, disgusting content).


you also have the problem of defining what a troll is. Looking at many Facebook threads these days, "anyone that doesn't go along with my way of thinking" is a troll. Or they're dismissed as a Russian bot/fake account.


sure, but how often do people actually follow:

> React to the anonymous information unemotionally. Abusive posters will be encouraged further if they get irrationally irate responses. Sometimes the most effective response is silence.

trolls don't need a lot of food to keep posting, but i posit they at least need some.


4chan does ok


no it doesn't.


4chan.org is the 212th most popular website in the U.S. at time of writing. This implies that it is able to attract plenty of different kinds of people and that the trolls aren't driving the rest away. If you go on most boards it's pretty easy to find interesting content and it's not particularly surprising that the site has remained a staple of internet culture for 15 years. I think that one of the main reasons for this is that the design of the site doesn't inherently require users to think beyond the scope of their individual posts. In general, there is no persistent identity and the visibility of posts is not determined by any kind of like/dislike feature. People post things and there is no kind of long term reward or punishment for posting "right" and "wrong" things. This kind of structure tends to create a community which is a lot less prone to group masturbation and smug and self righteous than certain other internet communities where long term identity and other people's opinions of your posts actually sort of matter. There is value in that idea, even if the that community type it's not for everyone.


It's more than just the absence of a like/dislike system, visibility of posts is directly determined by how much discussion they generate - for threads this means its position on the board stays higher for longer, so more people see it, and for replies the number of replies is visible while scrolling through the thread. This links agreement/disagreement with actual discourse (or, at least, communication), unlike e.g. Reddit where agreement and disagreement are done via voting, which doesn't contain any information other than the upvote/downvote itself. In systems like this, disagreeing via replying is actually suboptimal in terms of return on the labor involved with communicating this disagreement, because downvoted posts (posts people don't like) are less visible, meaning replies to them are less visible as well, even if they agree with the majority of the people downvoting their parent post.


On what grounds? They're just as high (well, low really) quality as Reddit but they're impolite and vulgar whereas Reddit gets angry if you're impolite and vulgar.


If Reddit is your standard, sure.


...doesn't it?


In my experience with web forums, this is the principal problem with trolls. It's kind of like real life, no one wants to be around them. So after a while, you end up with just the trolls on your site.

Maybe you can monetize trolls somehow? But I've never been on a team that came up with a good way to do so. No one wants to be 4chan.

In the end, it's always been better for the bottom line to try to make them go away.


The article is absolutely correct that there are lots of good uses for protecting anonymity or pseudonmity - that's what we fought the "real names" war for, after all.

Moderation is also vital to making a space usable. Enforcing real names is not a moderation policy in and of itself - people are perfectly willing to post hate speech under their own name, including in national newspapers.

Where these intersect is that it's much easier to moderate if you can ban someone in a way that they stay banned.


Wow, over twenty years old. Prescient.


> However, a small minority of people who use anonymity servers are sociopaths who are attracted by the ease with which they can avoid responsibility and accountability for their actions.

Yeah. No.

This argument against is old enough that it is now a straw man.

There are known state-level actors actively pushing propaganda through the internet. There are companies founded with the express purpose of providing influence in exchange for money. There are companies founded with the express purpose of providing bot accounts to make it seem as if a person is more popular than they are.

There is an industry and state level actors abusing anonymity online to shift discourse, with real life consequences more severe than death having already resulted. It isn't unreasonable to suppose that it is possible that millions of people will die as a consequence of some of the manipulations which has already occurred, given UN projections regarding the effect of climate change.

We accelerate in progression as we progress. 1995 is a lifetime ago. You might as well link Plato.

Recent google slides which made it to Hacker News frontpage has a slide that put the estimate of bot traffic on the internet near 30% of all traffic.

Taxes can be great; taxes without representation aren't. Anonymity can be great; anonymity for people with hostile motives who influence things which do not relate to themselves are not.

Have a little subtlety.

Edit:

I'm getting downvoted. Go watch Facebook testimony to congress and similar things in which their is admission of acts as vile as extremist groups being intentionally provoked into armed conflict being performed on online platform. Go read about the IRA and probes into Russian influence on social media. Stop being so ignorant, Hacker News. I get that you filter bubble out political talk, but in case you missed it, there is an actual reason behind why California is moving forward with a law to ban bots which don't confess to being a bot and similar laws designed to curtail these influence campaigns. Its not that legislators are insane.


>There are known state-level actors actively pushing propaganda through the internet.

The last group of people who will be thwarted by lack of anonymity on the web are "state-level actors". Literally.

> There are companies founded with the express purpose of providing influence in exchange for money.

Probably the second- or third- last group of people who would be thwarted by deanonymization.


> The last group of people who will be thwarted by lack of anonymity on the web are "state-level actors".

So you think Facebook adopting non-anonymous political ads as their policy was done because the intent wasn't to go after corporations and governments interfering with the political process? That instead, these people are the very last people who are going to be targeted?

The truth of the matter is that the first people targeted were these groups, but that they have the most resources, so may be most capable of overcoming these limits and causing harm anyway.


Propagandists prefer to not use the ad system - they have hoards of sockpuppet accounts to astroturf with for free, and its more persuasive if not clearly paid speech.


Yeah. Really though I'd rather not get into that. People are already trying to take what I said farther than intended for it to be taken. I was just trying to point out how badly this 1995 post anticipated the future. It thought the problem would be a limited number of sociopathic trolls. Makes sense as something born out of the era. Doesn't correlate with what actually causes problems in practice nowadays.


i agree that people were a bit naive in the 90s with respect to anticipating the problems with the internet, but i can't agree that anonymity is what they were wrong about. i find that people post much more concerning things on facebook pages, under their real names, than i have ever seen on sites like 4chan.


The problem isn't that people are acting anonymously, the problem is that individuals and organizations are acting to impersonate the non-anonymous.

follower counts only impact people because of the assumption that each follower is a _real_ person, which is a direct effect of the deanonymization we see today by social networks.

propaganda has significantly more impact when it is perceived to come from "just another normal person" rather than an anonymous bot.


> propaganda has significantly more impact when it is perceived to come from "just another normal person" rather than an anonymous bot.

Yes. Exactly.


I am commenting with a pseudonym on this website and I'm sure I hold many views which you would attribute to "bots". I am however a real person and not even Russian! Most of the people who you disagree with are the same, you must accept that.


But I was told that anybody that disagreed with the liberal bubble mentality of silicon valley was either a russian bot or was Brett Kavanaugh on a bender.




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