, , , , ,

That India is a strange place should be no surprise to India watchers; politicians, historians, political scientists, linguists, sociologists, and anthropologists have all seen their theories severely tested by the Indian story. This year, a new addition was made to the list of strange things about India, if anyone hasn’t yet given up on keeping such a list. It is perhaps the only country in which the fourth estate, or at least a large part of it, supports censorship in one form or another.

The first instance of this was seen this year in August when riots suddenly erupted across India, ostensibly over the treatment of Rohingyas in Burma (?!) and the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in Assam. The Government of India moved quickly yet haphazardly to restrict the number of text messages per day and blocked websites, FaceBook accounts, and twitter handles. The second instance, though a minor one, occurred today on twitter. Priya Ramani’s response to a tweet by Rajdeep Sardesai, both members of India’s infamous fourth estate, set off a mixed bag of reactions, from caricature and mockery to serious discussions about the positive and negative aspects of anonymity on the internet. It is the latter that concerns me here.

It is perhaps a human reflex to find anonymity suspicious. Professional researchers are trained to view anonymity with much scepticism. In many ways, it is what irks many people about the burkha. The internet, specifically social media, allows entirely anonymous interaction, lowering social inhibitions and permitting irresponsible behaviour such as aggression, abusive language, and other uncivilised traits. Worse, it is easier to spread false rumours and fan the flames of sectarian violence. In such a capacity, some argue, it can be destabilising to democracy.

This is absolute nonsense. The same arguments about security and stability are being repeated, and it is annoying to have to repeat the answers every time; objecting to anonymity is merely a new twist. If you are lucky, you may get another twist – Indian democracy is nascent and fragile, and any encouragement of fissiparous tendencies could lead to a much wider conflagration. If only saying the same thing in different ways was considered a new argument…

First off, let us get this very clear at the outset – there is no such thing as anonymity on the internet, except in the minds of amateurs. Any website one visits can, if it wishes, know a lot more about the visitor than may be desired. Screen resolution, browser, operating system, IP address, etc. are all ready for the capturing. Perhaps beyond the skill set of the average computer user, it is nonetheless possible to identify the faces behind the masks. There is no governmental need to mandate away anonymity.

The reason why many people prefer to be anonymous online (at much as possible) should have been made quite clear last week when a man was arrested in Tamil Nadu for questioning the sudden increase in wealth of Karthi Chidambaram, the son of India’s finance minister, in a tweet. That he was later released on bail is of little comfort – such an event can have adverse social effects among the neighbours and even at work. Adding insult to the injury, the man cannot even move the court on grounds of wrongful arrest – not only do the powerful know how to circumvent the law as in many countries, the Indian courts are hopelessly backlogged and justice can even take years.

There is, of course, a simpler reason for anonymity – it is not necessary to divulge one’s identity on the internet. Information is given only when something is expected in return – while it may be necessary to give the passport clerk one’s address, date of birth, and other details if one wants a travel document, it is not necessary to do the same at a candy store, where the owner need only be concerned with his/her customer’s cash. Controlled substances, such as certain chemicals, may require more information and some substances may be entirely banned. Nonetheless, there is a qualitative difference between twitter and FaceBook on the one hand, and lead azide and pentaerythrite tetranitrate on the other. Internet platforms have several mechanisms by which users can be restrained, blocked, and even have their accounts deleted if they are found to be in violation of the community’s rules.

It is also interesting to note that not all anonymous handles are genuinely functioning incognito; many are known to their friends. Anonymity is important not from each other but from authority since, in India, it knows only to sustain itself through the abuse of power. Anonymous users are also, no doubt, aware that they have less credibility due to their anonymous status; hence, to be taken seriously, they must build a history of credible commentary on their blogs, FaceBook profiles, or of tweets. In addition, the number of followers also lends to credibility. Thus, a “JohnDoe123” with 23,000 followers and 57,000 tweets may be less questionable than a “JaneDoe987” with 17 followers and 1,203 tweets. Similarly, a “DavidIsser” may appear a more reliable source of information than a “XenMaster” and if there is any doubt, it is nothing a quick scan of their timelines cannot clear. Thus, it is not impossible to evaluate the calibre of an anonymous user.

Finally, it needs to be reiterated that the government has the powers to pursue the user of an anonymous account if he or she has violated any law. Anonymity is no bar in this regard. The red herring of security and stability of government is just another ploy for the state to convert society into a giant panopticon. In a functioning democracy, this is a worry; in a dysfunctional, dynastic oligarchy like India, it is even more important that citizens defend their privacy with vigour.

Personally, I am deeply suspicious of anonymity, but personal dislike is not strong enough a reason to mandate disclosure. If dislikes were the yardstick, I’d also do away with poverty, socialism, war, and bigots. Sadly, it is not so. For all the “principled” opposition to anonymity, let it be noted – there is no such principle.