Trust is a crucial part of our society. We trust other drivers on the road not to crash into our cars, and we trust restaurant workers to not spit in our food. We do this even though these types of incidents occur regularly all over the world.[i] We retain our trust in these two situations because the rate of these negative occurrences is negligible for such mundane, every day activities. Not only that, but it is easy for us to believe that most others on the road are reasonably competent drivers and we trust that they have some sense of self preservation. Similarly, it is safe to assume that any restaurant manager would quickly punish a worker caught spitting in customers' food. These are only two simple examples of every day trust, but without it society cannot function.
What is interesting to consider is the concept of an anonymous restaurant worker who able to spit in food with impunity, with there being no effective way for a customer or management to identity or track them down. The onset of the Information Age has allowed for the conceptual anonymous restaurant worker to come to life, albeit in a digital world. Today, the Internet is a playground to hordes of users acting anonymously, doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do if their identities were known. They have made things such as illegal hacking, fake news, and cyberbullying commonplace. This is because through anonymity, they are not subject to many of what Bruce Schneier, in his 2012 book Liars & Outliers, calls “societal pressures.”[ii] He explains that there are four types of societal pressures that build and maintain trust in society: moral pressure, relating to our innate personal sense of wrong and right; reputational pressure, relating to how others in society respond to and judge our actions; institutional pressure, relating to the established rules, laws, norms, and customs of a given group; and security systems, technical or procedural mechanisms that prevent unwanted behavior. Of these, only one is capable of effectively combating the negative impacts of anonymous internet usage – security systems. If the Internet is to become fully ingrained and integrated into society, new security policy and technologies must be put in place to limit anonymous action online and ensure that the required level of societal trust is maintained.
In terms of trust, it is easy to see how our online and offline lives are at odds with each other. Because a high degree of trust is something that is required for society to function, the Internet in its current form will continue to make a negative social impact. Outside of the Internet, anonymity is the exception. In normal day-to-day life, we are expected to carry identification with us, put license plates on our cars, and have addresses on our homes. By default, our actions in the world are not anonymous, unless action is taken to ensure otherwise. A common example of which would be to put on a ski mask to hide one's identity – an action generally regarded as bad, not trustworthy, and dissuaded through traditional societal pressures.
Supporters of anonymity online would argue that it provides a freedom of expression -- freedom to create content on the Internet without burden of taking responsibility for it. Further, supporters may argue that a middle ground, pseudo-anonymity, can provide the best of both words. Pseudo-anonymity enables this freedom while also maintaining, through back-end technical means, a link to an actual identity. The purported benefit is that a user’s identity can be known for possible law enforcement reasons, but also at the same time creates an illusion of anonymity for the general user population. At the end of the day, online anonymity comes at a huge expense to our government[iii], which is forced to constantly surveil the entire network, capturing and storing vast amounts of data to try and maintain a system of trust. Despite this huge cost and effort there are remain relatively easy ways to maintain anonymity online. And a lot of damage has been done to our society due to the anonymous nature of the Internet. Examples of this include the weaponization of social media by terrorist organizations[iv], fake media outlets unreasonably swaying popular decision making[v], and negatively influencing society's already lackluster appreciation of the truth[vi]. We would be naive to think that this societal damage has not been made possible by the anonymity afforded by the Internet.
But what can be done? After all, from a technological perspective, from its foundation the network has always catered to those who wish to remain anonymous. The answer is security systems -- the only one of Schneier's societal pressures that be put in place to help prevent anonymous activity online. Some Internet services, a great example of which being Facebook, have done an admirable job of working to reduce the amount of anonymous user activity. By taking strides to enforce a one-to-one relationship between a user of the system and an actual person, people are held accountable for what they say and do online – law enforcement using Facebook to solve crimes is an almost every day occurrence.[vii] However, the Facebook model is incomplete because, through allowing linked content from outside services, they have exposed users to one of the worst aspects of anonymity online and helped to create a media-fueled divisive culture[viii]. What is instead needed is the inverse of the current trust paradigm of the Internet: legislation from our leaders that enforces a one-to-one identification at the network level. What this means is that as soon as a user is connected to the network, their identity should be known and maintained. Personal identification would be the default on the Internet, not the other way around. While this model could also allow for anonymity within certain spheres – services which allow users to share content pseudo-anonymously -- the overarching trust of the Internet would be maintained by enabling the other societal pressures. After all, as Schneier writes, “We humans are a social species, and more often than not someone is watching. And that makes an enormous difference.”
[i] Over a million people die in road crashes every year (http://asirt.org/initiatives/informing-road-users/road-safety-facts/road-crash-statistics)
[ii] Schneier, B. (2012). Liars and outliers: enabling the trust that society needs to thrive. Indianapolis. Wiley.