Physical Anonymity on the Web: A Monumental Challenge

Op-ed by Esra’a Al Shafei


I have spent the last decade of my life using the internet as a tool for advocacy, valuing it for the flexibility and security it has provided me in my work. It has allowed me to remain physically anonymous even while giving various speaking engagements in physical spaces. The digital realm has been a home base that grants me a sense of relative safety as a social justice activist living in a repressive environment.

Some time ago, I reflected on the importance of digital privacy to activists, and my hopes for the future in a changing technological landscape:

“Political and social circumstances make anonymity an integral rather than optional part of using the Internet, and when access to the Internet is defined by the offering of our personal information as sacrifice, the people who most need a safe community and free access to information aren’t able to obtain it.

When we learn to respect anonymity as a liberating tool for the sharing of better kinds of information, the Internet will become a safer and more dynamic space for everyone involved.”

Three years later, I’m now more pessimistic than ever before that the right to anonymity is one we can all be afforded. Privacy policies and terms of use are changing against our favor on a whim. We are slowly being forced to embrace touch ID and facial recognition software embedded in everyday tools. Prior to visiting a country, governments now require extensive documentation of your online history and presence depending on your nationality.

Beyond this, tech companies, search engines, and media entities are all seeking visual content as interfaces retool to become device friendly. This means that algorithms are increasingly designed to seek images first and to choose tags and keywords that may not necessarily be associated with the image in question, but that are featured prominently alongside your name regardless.

Apart from pulling irrelevant content, flawed knowledge graphs compromise those who wish to aggressively maintain their anonymity for reasons that extend beyond the comfort it provides. For years, images of my colleagues and friends with whom I have shared a stage or panel have appeared on search engines in association with my name, causing the press to conflate their personal pictures with my controversial work. We are all nervous about the implications of this. My anonymity was now coming at a cost to my colleagues who cannot afford to be associated with advocacy work for fear of repercussions of legal action or violence. I can’t sit back and accept that as a consequence.

There is a hands-off corporate culture at play that jeopardizes those most at risk. When notified of privacy violations, companies often claim they have no control over their algorithmic data and chalk it up to tough luck. It took me weeks of back-and-forth with Vimeo to have them pull footage of a very controversial, private talk that was meant to be completely off the record. It took over a year to get Google to correct a vital flaw that could potentially endanger a friend in Iran. Corporations increasingly seem to side with and enable trolls to bully activists into silence, tacitly or otherwise. Facebook sits by idly as trolls game their flagging system to take down LGBTQ pages in the Arab world and blackmail their members, while Facebook suspends victims of harassment with no transparency whatsoever, blindly rewarding abusers.

There has to be a better way to protect our identities without compromising the products we all rely on for our daily communication and information consumption — including (and especially) search engines. We first embraced the internet in part because the sense of control it afforded us. Now it’s out of our hands and we have very little recourse. Even if we shift away from using these apps and services, our private data is still shared and there are no mechanisms in place to empower us in our uphill fight for privacy.

For the sake of a healthier, safer internet — one where we are free to advocate for justice under increasingly repressive conditions — anonymity cannot be something we negotiate or compromise. In order for activists to continue their work, safety and peace of mind must be prioritized. Even if legalities oblige us to grant governments access to our data or it’s obtained without our consent, physical anonymity on the web adds a thin layer of protection that represents the line between life and death for many.

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