Anonymity and pseudonyms

The questions of anonymity, pseudonymity and reputation are also extensively discussed.

Anonymity, adjective “anonymous”, is derived from the Greek word ἀνωνυμία, anonymia, meaning “without a name” or “namelessness”. In colloquial use, “anonymous” is used to describe situations where the acting person’s name is unknown. Some writers have argued that namelessness, though technically correct, does not capture what is more centrally at stake in contexts of anonymity. The important idea here is that a person be non-identifiable, unreachable, or untrackable. Anonymity is seen as a technique, or a way of realising, a certain other values, such as privacy, or liberty.

An important example for anonymity being not only protected, but enforced by law is the vote in free elections. In many other situations (like conversation between strangers, buying some product or service in a shop), anonymity is traditionally accepted as natural. There are also various situations in which a person might choose to withhold their identity. Acts of charity have been performed anonymously when benefactors do not wish to be acknowledged. A person who feels threatened might attempt to mitigate that threat through anonymity. A witness to a crime might seek to avoid retribution, for example, by anonymously calling a crime tipline. Criminals might proceed anonymously to conceal their participation in a crime. Anonymity may also be created unintentionally, through the loss of identifying information due to the passage of time or a destructive event.

In a certain situations, however, it may be illegal to remain anonymous. In the United States, 24 states have “stop and identify” statutes that require persons detained to self-identify when requested by a law enforcement officer.

The term “anonymous message” typically refers to a message that does not reveal its sender. In many countries, anonymous letters are protected by law and must be delivered as regular letters.

Arguably, the possibility of anonymous speech and publication is vital for an open society, an essential requirement for genuine freedom of speech — this was the position of most cypherpunks. A frequently cited example was that the US Federalist Papers were originally published under a pseudonym.