Laura DeNardis, in her presentation for the “Technologies of Dissent” panel at the Access to Knowledge and Human Rights conference today, illustrated the dangers of too much openness and access to certain kinds of knowledge by pointing to eightmaps.com, a mashup of Google Maps and donor data for the Prop 8 anti-same-sex-marriage campaign in California: you can find out right where these donors live in San Francisco.
Later in the panel, Eddan Katz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation was emphasizing the virtues of online anonymity for facilitating free expression and dissent (with EFF’s Tor software, for example).
Obviously, most people at this conference think Prop 8 is a bad thing while anonymous communication between dissidents in places with oppressive and censorious governments is a good thing. But is there a principled argument that eightmaps.com is good and legitimate and those Prop 8 donors ought not be able to hide from the public, while dissidents in Iran or China ought to be able to organize and speak out and push for their favored kinds of political change behind the cloak of anonymity?
It’s the tension, as panelist Anupam Chander explained it, between the Foulcault and the Habermas versions of the Internet’s potential: universal panopticon surveillance state vs. universal public sphere for rational discourse.
My own view is that there’s a balance to be struck between the classic net principle of YOYOW (“You Own Your Own Words” meaning both that you can say what you want to say and you are responsible for what you say) and the right to speak anonymously. The balance (one of the driving tensions in the history of the Wikipedia community, incidentally) is essentially the question of the limits of anonymous speech and action.
(Shooting from the hip here) I suggest a rule of thumb: the closer the political environment approximates an ideal Habermasian public sphere, the stronger the imperative that that people own their own words when they choose to engage in public discourse. Likewise, the more limits on what people are allowed to say, the more right they have to engage in a wider variety of anonymous speech and action. (For speech that is not intended to be part of the public sphere, things are quite different and there is more of an argument for privacy and anonymity.)
[A summary of the whole panel is up on the Yale ISP blog: A2K4 Panel II: Technologies of Dissent: Information and Expression in a Digital World]