Cover of Darkness - What will happen when everyone is anonymous?
When assessing big-picture trends such as these, it’s not always helpful to think in terms of one mass aggregate score. Nevertheless, I think that the overall influence of online anonymity will remain a positive one for individual and social liberty. Anonymous trolls are a nuisance, but you can’t start outing them without also revealing the human rights activist or undercover journalist. That’s the kicker: anonymity is often valuable and important at different times and in different places, which is reason enough to defend it. Because once it’s gone, it’s usually gone for good. As a general rule of thumb, once governments have powers to monitor citizens, they rarely surrender them. Perhaps anonymity in the future will be even more important than it is now.
Online secrecy is not an absolute right, of course; it is, on occasion, in the interests of general liberty that some people are spied upon. But a prima facie right to act unseen is something worth defending. Oscar Wilde once wrote that if you give a man a mask, he’ll tell you the truth. True, but he’s more likely to be mean and nasty while he’s at it. We just have to live with that.
Twister is part of a trend toward a decentralization of the net. Another is called ‘MaidSafe’, which is a UK start-up that aims to redesign the internet infrastructure towards a peer-to-peer communications network, without centralized servers. Its developers are building a network made up of contributing computers, with each one giving up a bit of its unused hard drive. You access the network, and the network accesses the computers. It’s all encrypted and bits of data are stored all across the network, which makes hacking or spying far harder.
The internet pioneer Brewster Kahle has a dream – universal access to all knowledge – and it’s in reach
Nick Lambert, the chief operating officer for MaidSafe, explained the vision to me. When you open a browser and surf the web, it might feel like a seamless process, but there are all manner of rules and processes that clutter up the system: domain name servers, company servers, routing protocols, security protocols and so on. As Lambert explains, that centralisation results in powerful groups – whether governments, big tech companies, or invisible US-based regulators – exercising control over what happens on the net. That’s bad for security, and bad for privacy.