The Evolution of Identity
We’ve always believed that anonymity is the Internet’s most prized feature. Yet through our behaviour we readily forsake anonymity in exchange for our online identity.
For as long as I can remember, the most celebrated feature of the Internet has been its anonymity. We have always been told that we can say and do whatever we want on the Internet, without fear of reprisal because its decentralized architecture guarantees anonymity. This is the reason why it is virtually impossible to destroy free speech on the Internet. As a result, at least for those of us who have been online for a while, it has become almost second nature to treat privacy as our last line of defence against the apocalypse of stolen identity and data breach.
But stolen identity has never really been a problem in India — considering how cumbersome it is to establish identity in the first place. When was the last time you subscribed to a new service in India just by signing up? Each time you apply for something, your application has to be accompanied by multiple forms of ID — passport copies, electricity bills, copies of your driver’s licence — all personally signed at the bottom for additional corroboration. There is no one document capable of satisfactorily proving that you are who you say you are.
Thanks to Aadhaar, all this is about to change — and fast. All you now need to do to establish your identity is stare into an iris scanner-enabled smartphone for the few seconds it takes for your biometrics to be verified against the Aadhaar database. With a growing number of service providers adopting Aadhaar authentication to meet their KYC (know your customer) obligations, generating reams of paper every time you apply for a loan will become a thing of the past. We have already begun to witness an increasing number of tech start-ups based, almost entirely, on this identity infrastructure. When implemented at scale, these businesses will allow the technology revolution to percolate down to the grassroots, where the lack of a verifiable identity has so far prevented access.
Aadhaar is a strategic initiative designed to create an identity for people where none existed. But even without this sort of deliberate effort, the concept of anonymity itself is on the wane. Social media is now our primary means of communication, and our default response is to share news rather than keep it private. We increasingly live our lives online with people we rarely meet in person and have fundamentally different perspectives on privacy from what we had a decade ago.
But there is at least one section of the Internet that still revels in the anonymity that the Internet offers and thrives in its shadows. I am speaking of trolls who spend their time online haunting social media platforms and public fora, ready, at a moment’s notice, to spew out streams of bile at anyone who attracts their attention. There is no better example than them, of the deleterious consequences of anonymity on the Internet.
Trolls operate with no filters. Their accounts are anonymous, leaving them free to plumb depths of depravity that wouldn’t have been legal in real life. And since they use generic identities, they are impervious to Twitter bans, casually generating new accounts whenever their old ones are suspended.
A couple of weeks ago, things finally came to a head with the troll army. One of their more prominent members, Milo Yiannopoulos, took it upon himself to goad his followers into heaping racial abuse on one of the stars of the Ghostbusters reboot. The resulting tirade was so vile and vicious that Twitter permanently suspended his account.
Yet, for every silenced Milo, there are hundreds of anonymous accounts abusively rampaging around the Internet and lowering the overall standard of the discourse. Their presence on the Internet has made it a far less enjoyable place to be — and it seems that there is nothing social media platforms can do to stop them.
Last week, I put in an application for a verified Twitter account. Not from a misguided sense of stardom, but as a sort of identity experiment. The way I see it, applying for a verified account allows you to expressly opt out of anonymity by irrevocably linking your real-world profile to your online persona. In a world filled with anonymous accounts, the only users you will be able to trust are those with the courage to forgo anonymity.
I am hoping that eventually others will follow suit, as they become unwilling to put up with the cowardly behaviour of anonymous louts. In time, maybe we will be able to consciously choose to only engage with other verified accounts. And if enough of us tweeters get the blue tick, maybe we will finally be able to mute every unverified, vile-mouthed hate-monger who spews filth at us from behind a curtain of anonymity.
And then, perhaps we can bring some normalcy back to the Internet.
This article was first published in The Mint under a column called Ex Machina on the interface between law and technology.