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Arianna, Anonymity and Freedom

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Arianna Huffington has decided to end commenter anonymity at the Huffington Post. Our conversation, she tells me, was 'very important in my decision'. In my article I wrote, 'Somebody has to teach the internet companies some basic logic -- anonymity and free speech are incompatible -- and Arianna is in a position to do it.' As many people don't seem to understand this point, I had better explain.

Anonymity has been claimed by internet utopians as an aspect of free speech. This is the illogic to which I was referring. To claim freedom is to claim moral agency. It would be wrong to claim that a lion is free -- though I understand the idea has a kind of sentimental, anthropomorphic charm -- because the lion, lacking self-consciousness, is not a moral agent. When we use the word 'free' about humans, we do so in acknowledgment of our common humanity, the assumption being that others are like us in the sense that they can discriminate between right and wrong.

Of course, this is not always the case -- psychopaths being the extreme example -- but, without the assumption, much of what we say to each other would be meaningless. It is intrinsic to freedom, therefore, that we are identified.

Before the internet this was a fairly normal states of affairs. People, of course, could write anonymous letters or anonymously shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre, but, overwhelmingly, communications were between people who identified themselves -- either by giving their name or being present in person -- as humans like you and me. (I am aware of the special case of whistleblower whose life or job may depend on being anonymous, but, if he is to be accepted, he must identify himself to the people to whom he is blowing his whistle.)

The internet turned anonymity into a new norm. People became accustomed to communicating with unidentified strangers. Sometimes robots would be involved, but, obviously, most of these communications would be with humans. However, these were a new type of human, a type whose moral agency was eliminated by anonymity. The exploitations of this perversion of freedom are all too familiar. They point to a future in which the very fact of moral agency will come to be seen as an encumbrance. There may be advantages to this state of affairs, but none of them will be freedom.

In short, only humans are free and they only attain freedom through moral agency, by asserting their place in the human realm. I cannot imagine any other coherent conception of freedom. To treat anonymity, therefore, as an aspect of freedom is an extraordinary perversion, a reduction of our humanity. I am proud to have helped persuade Arianna of this truth.

This post first appeared on bryanappleyard.com