Centre for Research in Communication and Culture


8 February 2017

Online anonymity: Right or threat?

Presented By Simone Natale, Nikos Sotirakopoulos, Mark Monaghan and Thais Sardá

About this event

Whenever we navigate the Web, we leave a trace of our movements through our IP address, which can in turn be used to establish our identity - for instance, by cross-checking it with a user’s Internet subscription. By using software such as VPN and Tor, however, it is possible to avoid leaving such traces, becoming anonymous in the web.

A lively debate among policy-makers, security professionals, hacker communities, and human rights associations has recently ensued regarding the question if such anonymity is acceptable and in which form. On the one side, advocates of online anonymity point to the right to privacy and the potential risks of an ever-reaching surveillance state; on the other side, its antagonists emphasize the presence of close links between anonymity and criminal activities online.

This half-day symposium aims to encourage dialogue between scholars, institutions, stakeholders, and the wider community about an issue of web governance that will be of crucial importance in the next years in order to build the civic society of the information age.

Convenors: Mark Monaghan, Simone Natale, Thais Sardá and Nikos Sotirakopoulos


1:00-1:10 – Welcome
John Downey (director of the Centre for Research in Communication and Culture) and symposium convenors
1:10-2:00 - Timandra Harkness (presenter of BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing), "Anonymity, Autonomy, Privacy and Secrecy"
2:00-3:00 - Tim Jordan (University of Sussex), “Anonymity: A Complex Right”
3:00-3:30 - Break
3:30-4:30 - Judith Aldridge (University of Manchester), “Drug-trade and anonymity in cryptomarkets: harms and benefits for users and sellers”
4:30-5:50 - Round table with Dave Elder-Vass (Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University), a representative of the ngo Open Rights Group, and Russell Lock (Department of Computer Science, Loughborough University)
5:50-6:00 – Conclusions

For information, please contact Thais Sardá

The event is free and open to the public. It will take place in Loughborough University campus (Brockington Building - room B.1.11).

Conference abstracts

Anonymity, Autonomy, Privacy and Secrecy - Timandra Harkness (presenter of BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing)
Why does privacy matter? Sometimes viewed with suspicion, privacy is essential to autonomy in the public, as well as the private, sphere. Without the ability to decide who knows what about us, it's impossible to be free to organise socially and politically. Nevertheless, most societies are prepared to trade some violations of privacy in return for the prevention and detection of those who would harm us. How does this play out in the online world, where boundaries between public and private are still being drawn and disputed? Big data brings the power to track routine interactions by default, and to combine innocuous databases, thus identifying and characterising individuals. Is the internet public space, or the new private space, or an entirely new type of arena which needs new rules?

Anonymity: A Complex Right - Tim Jordan (University of Sussex)
Why should we consider anonymity to be a right? This paper will begin by establishing the core arguments about anonymity as a right by following the two examples of Snowden and Manning. This will outline the issues that arise around anonymity considered as essential to personal security (both in terms of creativity and whistle blowing) against the ethic of taking responsibility for one’s utterances. This paper will explore this understanding of anonymity as a right by focusing on communication and anonymity to argue that the kind of communicative practice being assumed within the security/creativity versus responsibility debate is one in which the physical body is held to be the author of communication. This will be based on research into 19th century letters. However, this form of communicative practice is only one kind and a different form of practice is created online. Here the body is largely absent and the identity-markers—such as, email address, knickname, handle, etc.—are unstable and changeable. I will present research on online games and 4Chan to demonstrate that internet based communication functions for hearers or receivers to stabilise and authorise communication through the style of someone’s communication; meaning that on the internet you have to be heard before you can speak. This understanding of communication will be used to explore the meaning of anonymity. Anonymity is then presented as a complex right. The first rights are familiar and complex: security to utter and to be creative versus the responsibility to ‘own’ one’s utterances. However, the presumption of the body as the basis of identity that is made in this opposition, obscures a more fundamental reason anonymity is a right, because the nature of anonymity online is consonant with and necessary to the way internet communicative practices function. This means anonymity is essential to existence online and so forms a second kind of right.

Drug-trade and anonymity in cryptomarkets: harms and benefits for users and sellers - Judith Aldridge (University of Manchester)
Cryptomarkets represent an important drug market innovation by bringing buyers and sellers of illegal drugs together in a ‘hidden’ yet public online marketplace. Policy responses so far are generally based on the assumption that their rise will only increase drug harms. But is this a valid assumption? This paper examines the effects of drug markets on various forms of harm, alongside emerging evidence on the operation of cryptomarkets, to assess anticipated harms and benefits. Cryptomarkets may increase both the amount and the range of substances that are sold by increasing drug quality and reducing price. The effects of these anticipated changes for the drug users are complex, with macro-harm at the population level likely increasing, but modified by improved access to quality and safety information that may be used to reduce harm at the individual level. Harm can be understood also in the form of transactional risk (e.g. violence), and risk of arrest. How these risks differ across drug market types will be assessed, and how cryptomarket users seek particularly to reduce the risk of apprehension and arrest when effectively operating ‘in plain sight’ of law enforcement will be considered. Drug cryptomarkets are characterised as ‘illicit capital’ sharing communities that provide expanded and low-cost access to information enabling drug market participants to make more accurate assessments of the risk of apprehension. The abundance of drug market intelligence available to those on both sides of the law may function to speed up innovation in illegal drug markets, as well as necessitate and facilitate the development of law enforcement strategies.