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Source: Coursen, 2014

  • The Power & Price of Anonymity Online

Free use of the Internet has opened the way for the creation and accumulation of innovation and spread of knowledge. Though that it facilitates social, cultural and political interactions across the world, today, this freedom is in jeopardy due to the desire of Internet providers (IP) to play the role of censorship, surveillance and preference of some services over others in name of public and nation protection.

The public privacy concerns against IP management should not encourage the internet companies neither the governments to censor the network content or monitor communications. In the other hand, it is of importance to maintain this useful technology to its core principals to stay open and free for all, but then again through human ethical manners and not to anonymous trolls (Applebaum, 2014).

 

The ethical dilemma of the right to anonymity hides behind various excuses and represent a democratic challenge. It ranges from fear of government brutal against activist on social media (Arab Spring Uprising), religious persecution, criminal traffic, cyber bullies, corruption scandals, political leaks exposure, commercial frauds, offense comments, LGBT rights, and human rights of freedom of expression.

Rothrock (2014) addressed the dark side when the people provided the means to escape censorship and spying. ‘The same [VPN] network is also used by people engaged in organized crime, drug trafficking, and the exchange and sale of child pornography’ while Cook (2010) affirms the right of anonymity choice because it ‘gives the freedom to know what people really think’. And ‘it’s the essence of democracy’.

In general, anonymous person enjoys the disclosure of personal history and a space of free embarrassment that helps to provide an isolated room to bridge the impact of his/her legally prohibited actions and avoid physical or social risk, particularly in countries with low margin of freedom of expression. Yet, internet users who use to hide identity by changing IP addresses or blocking cookies should remember that these techniques might not be enough to erase the trace of internet activity.

  • Anonymity in MENA Region

‘Anonymity does better when it accompanied with awareness and education’ says Ahmado (2014). Ahmado hides her/his identity as an activist inside Syria, but at the same time admits that this anonymously doesn’t protect its holder from been revealed by a malware or hackers attacks.

In this regard, Ballard (2014) reported that Iranian government is working to block the internet anonymity. ‘It is believed that by preventing anonymous browsing, it hopes to deter individuals from posting contentious content.’

According to Najem (no date), most of Arab government doesn’t have a specific law of anonymity online as right, contrary; it might prosecute under a terrorism law. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are among other Gulf Cooperation Council countries that potentially may follow.

July 2014 survey of the ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICTQatar) on the attitudes of online users in MENA region to cyber safety, security and data privacy, revealed that 30% of internet users in Middle East and 31% of North Africa tend to “totally agree” the right of being to occasional anonymity online whereas this percentage considered 3% above the world average (please refer to the figure below).

This result indicates that there a trend in MENA to use anonymous identities due to internet privacy fears and its citizen suspicions prospect towards their communications especially after Snowden leaks which confirmed to what extent governments are spying, collecting and processing personal data to analyze individuals’ behaviors.

Despite the fact that MENA Internet users are ‘most likely to express an opinion about politics online’ with their real names, the survey demonstrated that they are ‘more cautious about what to say and does online.’

Earlier, in 2011, International Business Times reported that the Free Software Foundation awarded Tor Project for protecting Anonymity in Libya. Tor Project went on use broadly during Turkey's 2014 March protest when the authorities banned Twitter, says AlHussaini (2014). It offers considerable privacy margins to its user’s identity, location and login tracking.

Wikileaks founder suggests whistleblowers to use Tor as safe transporter, Russia offered four million rubles to crack the project (Rothrock, 2014), while NSA described people who use Tor as "Very naughty people” (Coursen, 2014).

Source: ICTQatar, 2014.

 

  • Anonymity: Pros vs. Cons

On his analysis, Fontana (2014) asked simple but yet difficult to answer questions: ‘Where is that data stored? Who owns it? Who has access to it? And who is liable for its protection, unintended release or stealth aggregation’. He addressed that 25 billion devices to be connected by 2020; nevertheless, privacy and anonymity are two of the century biggest concerns. While anonymity armed with honesty is good for survey, justice and legal engagements where it encourage the criticizing, voting, performance evaluation for improvement or investigation purposes, applications like SnapChat, Secret App, Tinder and Tor are a fertilized soil of good and evil alike.

AlQassemi (2014) from UAE argues on “State” website that anonymity is dangerous and important at the same time; nonetheless, it needs ‘a delicate balance to be struck in order to protect individuals’ freedoms online and prevent misuse of the Internet’.

Applebaum (2014) reflected an important point of view of linking the cyberspace to offline world when he states that ‘anyone who writes online should be as responsible for his words as if he were speaking them aloud’.

It’s about responsibility which comes with real identity (Clapperton, 2013).

Indeed, MENA internet users comply to the charter of the human rights and principles of the internet resumed by iGmena’s (no date) in “Click Rights”: ‘everyone has the right to privacy online’ including the right to encryption, and online anonymity; not to forget self-assessment and transparency, ‘based on principles of openness, inclusive participation and accountability’ of information posted. These are ethical principles that apply on individuals and groups. The bottom line, ‘people are a product of what they read, learn, understand and experience’ iGmena (no date).

Cook (2010) claims that protecting the people’s domain of privacy without fear of been penalized and encouraging constructive behavior in online discussions are far progressive ‘than trying to chain people to their names’.

On the other hand, internet lawmakers should protect the end users identities and secure their communications as sacrosanct, because ‘if they do not, the Internet will become a universal tool of oppression instead of a tool of empowerment’ Rodrigues (2013).

Few months ago, anonymity has been discussed at Internet Governance 2014 (IGF2014). However, the cyberwar, to reveal or conceal identity, thus far without a definite winner between privacy activists, human rights defenders on internet, advocacy organizations and MENA’s governments.

So how to behave yourself on the internet?

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