The Cult of Anonymity

From: Kevin Kelly To: Andrew Keen Subject: Social contracts vs. digital code Let’s begin where we agree. You say: “We must resist the siren song of anonymity—perhaps the greatest of all digital curses.” I agree. I summarized my argument against … Read More

By / May 29, 2007

From: Kevin Kelly To: Andrew Keen Subject: Social contracts vs. digital code

Let’s begin where we agree.

You say: “We must resist the siren song of anonymity—perhaps the greatest of all digital curses.” I agree. I summarized my argument against anonymity when I answered the question, “What’s Your Dangerous Idea?”:

Anonymity is like a rare earth metal. These elements are a necessary ingredient in keeping a cell alive, but the amount needed is a mere hard-to-measure trace. In larger doses, however, these heavy metals are some of the most toxic substances known to a life. They kill. Anonymity is the same. As a trace element in vanishingly small doses, it’s good for the system by enabling the occasional whistleblower, or persecuted fringe. But if anonymity is present in any significant quantity, it will poison the system…Like all toxins, anonymity should be keep as close to zero as possible.

You and I disagree on what to do about this toxin. Your solution to most of the corruptions online is very direct, very simple, and very clear: “We need laws, a series of social contracts, to constructively regulate our behavior on the Internet…. I’m not suggesting the imposition of draconian Internet laws. But I think we need some laws and certainly more aggressive social policing to control our worst impulses.”

Spam is a cancer caused primarily by anonymity. (In fact most of the failings you rail against in your book are rooted in anonymity rather than amateurs. It should be properly called “The Cult of Anonymity.”) If the senders of spam could be outed, they’d soon disappear. In my early frustration with spam I often thought we could eradicate it by outlawing anonymous mail. But I’ve hung around hackers long enough to know they would quickly hack a way around the law (impersonating and hijacking legit sources, say). I’ve come around instead to rely on technological means (spam filters, etc.), which have essentially removed spam as an issue for me.

Laws tend to try to remedy a problem by a global top-down solution. Technological solutions, on the other hand, tend to work more locally, more adaptively, and for that reason I believe they are more likely to create the change we wish.

Even a “social contract” is more top-down than may be useful these days. What form would it take? Peer pressure? Education in schools? Op-ed page editorials? I can’t imagine any of these being very effective in “curing” anonymity. But there is one very effective tool in diminishing anonymity: code. The folks who create online social systems and marketplaces can regulate the degree of anonymity by coding it in or not. Through technological means, we can tweak how much anonymity we have.

Jeff Bezos, founder of, has said that he regretted allowing anonymous book reviews, but it was too late to outlaw them when he realized the harm they could cause. So Amazon implemented a “true names” function, wherein reviewers willing to reveal their true names and be accountable for what they said would have more standing, a higher reputation and weight than a hit-and-run anonymous review. Those arenas where anonymity is kept microscopic by design of the system are the zones where civility reigns.

There is an immense difference between trying to regulate people’s moral behavior indirectly by design and code versus directly by law, and it’s the key difference between reformers and engineers. I suspect you are a reformer and I am an engineer.

Let’s take another corruption that upsets you: digital piracy. As you say, “I am in favor of laws that unambiguously punish digital piracy.” That word unambiguously is very telling, because if there is anything clear about copyright laws in this new Internet world, it is that not very much is clear and unambiguous. There are a lot of laws already on the books about copyright, but those laws have not stopped file-sharing, mashups, or even commercial counterfeiting.

Every survey of these behaviors show them steadily increasing. Some of these uses are blatantly illegal, but many are not blatant, stuck in a gray zone, awaiting clarifications of the law. For those who believe that they are on the wrong side of the law, there is a frustration at their ubiquity, and the primeval impulse is to want even more laws. Laws on top of laws—unambiguous laws. But there cannot (yet) be unambiguous laws because we haven’t yet as a society sorted the nature of property in this new realm. If the many laws existing have not stemmed the tide, more laws will not either. All that these unenforceable laws do is weaken respect for the law, which in the end is a far greater corruption.

The solution for the ambiguity of ownership in an idea economy will come as we develop further tools for
regulating people’s behavior, such as digital rights management technology, new instruments of property protection (between patents and copyrights), new methods of adjudicating priority, and new emerging societal norms for fair use. Only then can the law cement—codify—what technology and society allow.

Regulating morality by law has been a disaster everywhere it has been tried in the modern world. I have lived in some of those places, particularly Iran. Here the law unambiguously punished the sins you rail against: “pornography, illegal gambling, hubris, sexual promiscuity, contempt for meritocratic hierarchy, shameless narcissism, and political, sexual, and racial hatred.” And here is what I know happens when regimes like Iran try to regulate morality:

1) It is not very effective in the short term.

2) It is not sustainable in the long term.

3) The costs of laws, even when effective, are not tallied. That is, the psychological costs of regulating sins is very heavy. Ask any fundamentalist kid.

Like many places where morality is regulated by law, Iran is not a place conducive to innovation and change. And it is not just Islamic sharia. We see the same results in places where Hindus, Jains, Jews, and Christians try to make their usually well-intentioned preferences universal by mandating them with laws.

In short, legislating morality and civic virtue doesn’t work. And it particularly doesn’t work if your neighbors (next door, next city, next country) have a different regime. And it especially doesn’t work if there is not universal agreement on what the sins are, which is where we are right now.

Good character? Virtuous lives? Civic discourse? Public humility? I am all for them.

By regulation and social strong-arming? No way.

I am no anarchist. I think we need “some laws” as you put it. My problem with national laws for fixing Internet problems, at least in America in 2007, is that this is a very slow, overly broad hammer for problems that can be addressed faster and more effectively by rewriting, reinventing, and re-imagining the technological matrix that holds them. I think the laws that regulate our moral compass should be as few, concise, and minimal as possible. Like the Ten Commandments.

In the end I agree with you that to “save” the Internet we need to save ourselves. But I don’t believe we can save people by regulating them to salvation.


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