Privacy and anonymity are very close relatives, but their fates seem to be headed in very different directions, as recent examples from the worlds of Google and Facebook illustrate.

Michael Hickins, Contributor

August 27, 2009

2 Min Read

Privacy and anonymity are very close relatives, but their fates seem to be headed in very different directions, as recent examples from the worlds of Google and Facebook illustrate.Earlier this week, Canada's privacy commissioner announced that Facebook agreed to bow to the government's demands to delete the data belonging to users who cancel their accounts. This comes on the heels of recent European Union guidelines for social networks that also set more stringent privacy protections than currently exist.

Even though these rules come from abroad, they will also apply to U.S. users.

Those may be healthy developments, but don't make the mistake of associating privacy with anonymity, a right that has increasingly come under legislative fire here in the U.S.

Duane Morris attorney Eric Sinrod wrote that one consequence of the 2006 Violence Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act is that

a person who makes a Web posting or who sends an e-mail intended simply to annoy someone else while not disclosing his or her true identity could be subject to fines and jail time.

Most recently, a New York court's decision forcing Google to reveal the identity of the author of Skanks of New York was good tabloid fodder in recent days, and has led the formerly-anonymous blogger to sue Google for $15 million for violating her anonymity.

Her lawyer argued that "Our Founding Fathers wrote 'The Federalist Papers' under pseudonyms… Inherent in the First Amendment is the right to speak anonymously."

Indeed, while the Founding Fathers enjoyed several liberties they didn't necessarily intend on sharing with others (notably women and African-Americans), there is a long list of precedent establishing anonymity as a protected right.

That right, however, seems increasingly observed more in the breach than in the practice. It could be that there's less public support for the rights of anonymity as there is for privacy, perhaps because there's a taint of sneakiness or cowardice associated with anonymity. But anonymity is no less important a right, and the Constitution is intended to protect individual liberty against the tyranny of public opinion.

But public officials in this country, including judges, increasingly allow themselves to be led by public opinion polls. Maybe, as with privacy rights, the right to anonymity will have to find protection under European or Canadian regulations. Am I the only one who finds it ironic that our vaunted individual liberties are increasingly protected by the very countries as a reaction to which we created our nation and its Constitution?

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