Becoming anonymous: why privacy on the web is no bad thing

Where we are now

That brings to today, where online anonymity has never been under greater threat. It's not easy to visit the most popular websites without telling them exactly who you are, and even if you don't, it's logged by default by the NSA and GCHQ anyway. An attitude of "if you've got nothing to hide, you've got nothing to fear" dominates the discourse, and anyone using a pseudonym is immediately treated with suspicion.


There are many good reasons for why this is. It's easy to demonstrate that plenty of people abuse anonymity. Some use it as a crutch for cowardice. Cyberbullying is a genuine problem, and needs addressing, and anonymity is used as frequently to cloak criminal activity online as it is in the real world. No-one disagrees that we need accountability online.

"If we remove pseudonymity then we remove a large part of what makes the internet such a world-changing force."

But it feels like the generation that's grown up with the web has become so comfortable with namelessness that it doesn't appreciate how important it is. It feels, too, like the rest of us have forgotten what the world was like before pseudonymity became so widespread. So here's a quick reminder.

If we remove pseudonymity, then no longer will political dissidents be able to use the web to coordinate the overthrow of tyrannical dictators. No longer will LGBT teens be able to find support networks to help them come to terms with their sexuality. No longer will abused spouses be able to search for divorce lawyers safely. No longer will anyone with a non-mainstream interest be able to pursue it without fear of mockery. No longer will whistleblowers be able to out corruption without fear of reprisal. The list goes on.

Turning back the clock

In short, if we remove pseudonymity then we remove a large part of what makes the internet such a world-changing force. We turn back the clock on the vast improvements that the web has brought into the lives of so many people.

For what? So far, we've failed to see any dents in trolling that can be credited to a real names policy and even if we did, is that really enough to justify the freedom we'd be taking away from the most disadvantaged in society? In the words of Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would sacrifice freedom for security deserve neither."

Losing our rights to online anonymity would be a huge step backward for both society and the world. Let's never let that happen, either today or in the future.

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.