Why Online Anonymity is Critical for Women

Posted by Sara Baker on Mar 11, 2016 in Internet Policy, Online Harassment
Why Online Anonymity is Critical for Women
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When it comes to online violence against women, anonymity is a tricky subject.  Imagine someone is looking for you online. Can they discover what neighborhood you live in, the places you frequent, your circle of friends? Can they see where you work? Now imagine you need to hide. How would this need change what you put online or how you use your devices? How would it limit your daily life?

Undoubtedly, it would be easier to find people committing violence if they could not hide behind anonymity, and there is a chance that they might be less willing to behave in a way that demeans and threatens women if their actions were associated with their names. But anonymity can be an important shield for survivors of gender-based violence, LGBTQ persons, women human rights defenders and others.

With the increasing pervasiveness of digital technology, privacy is becoming more difficult to maintain, and this puts survivors of intimate partner violence and abuse at risk.

Anyone who works with survivors of violence against women knows that privacy is critical to their survival and healing. Privacy allows survivors to live without the constant fear that their abuser is watching their every step or lurking behind every corner, as abusers use surveillance to create such fear. It allows them to seek help, access justice and rebuild their lives. With the increasing pervasiveness of digital technology, privacy is becoming more difficult to maintain, and this puts survivors of intimate partner violence and abuse at risk. Whether they experienced physical or psychological violence from a partner or a stranger, sometimes the only way they can lessen this risk is through the use of online anonymity or pseudonymity.

Like survivors, trans and queer women face great risk of online and offline violence due to their presence on the internet, as do sexual rights activists, women human rights defenders and political dissidents. Approximately two-thirds of respondents to an Association for Progressive Communications (APC) international exploratory survey to understand the impact of Facebook’s real name policy reported that they would not feel safe using their real name on the platform, with one person saying, “I’m trans, queer, a domestic abuse and childhood/sexual assault survivor, recovering addict, formerly incarcerated youth, former sex worker, community organizer, and activist. There are potentially dangerous people I don’t want to find me.”

APC is part of the Nameless Coalition pressuring Facebook to change the policy requiring people to use their real names on their profiles because we understand the need for survivors and activists to protect their identities and the great risks that women around the world take when they use digital devices. Women human rights defenders in many Latin American countries face grave risks involving a combination of online and offline violence, as an APC case study from Colombia details. When women’s rights activists in Pakistan are accused of blasphemy, death threats immediately follow, and sometimes people follow through on those threats. In an atmosphere of endemic violence against women and a culture of impunity, digital security tactics like anonymity can allow women to continue working to uphold human rights without risk to themselves, their colleagues and their families.   

Two-thirds of respondents to an Association for Progressive Communications (APC) international exploratory survey to understand the impact of Facebook’s real name policy reported that they would not feel safe using their real name on the platform.

You might think people can deal with online harassment by just getting off the internet. What would it mean for you to give up your online life? How critical is the internet for your job? Is social media only for people who don’t have to live in fear? Should a woman who was raped at a party never leave her home again? Telling survivors of violence to just get off the internet, or leave any public space, punishes them for someone else’s actions. It means fewer women and girls, people of colour, LGBTQ persons and other marginalised people on the internet and more of those who already hold much of the power.

People who have experienced violence or are more likely to be the targets of harassment and abuse should be able to use the internet to live, work and play the way the rest of us do. They should be able to use the opportunities the internet offers to fight for and fully enjoy their rights. At a minimum, survivors must be able to use the internet to access life-saving resources, find out about their rights and options for justice, seek support, interact with their social circle and take action to become or stay safe.

Anonymity is not a strategy that everyone chooses, but it should be available to anyone who needs it. More than a survival strategy, anonymity is fundamental to human rights. Without privacy, we cannot have autonomy, and on the internet anonymity is a key mechanism for achieving autonomy. That it is sometimes abused is unfortunate, but this does not detract from its role in freeing us from surveillance. For women in particular, social surveillance is a longstanding problem.

People who have experienced violence or are more likely to be the targets of harassment and abuse should be able to use the internet to live, work and play the way the rest of us do.

Historically, women’s actions have been monitored by fathers, husbands, neighbours and the state, a problem that continues to limit women’s opportunities in culturally conservative environments. Women are often considered objects to be viewed, discussed and controlled rather than the subjects of our own lives. This has left us little privacy, even as we have been relegated to the domestic, or private, sphere. Violence against women in public spaces, whether at a bus stop or on Twitter, serves to punish us for having the nerve to venture into spaces traditionally marked as masculine.

Some women need to deal with this problem by hiding their gender, using a pseudonym or commenting anonymously. In an ideal world, each woman would feel free to be herself online, but, until that happens, the most critical step we can take is to employ strategies that enable us to stay connected. One of the core principles of the Association of Progressive Communications Feminist Principles of the Internet is that anonymity affords us the freedom to explore, experiment and express ourselves.

The internet is now the location of much of the world’s most important political and cultural work, and the Report of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression cites the importance of anonymity to this work in the digital age, especially for people facing discrimination. Ultimately, we need survivors online participating in social change in the way that feels safest for them.

Sara Baker

Sara Baker is a writer and nonprofit consultant who works on capacity building and gender justice. She work with the Association for Progressive Communications as the global coordinator of Take Back the Tech!, a collaborative campaign to take control of technology to end violence against women.

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Copyright Women’s Media Center, 2016. For reprint, contact permissions@womensmediacenter.com. The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.