Posted on Feb 19, 2014 by Rick Falkvinge

Without Anonymity, Free Speech Does Not Exist

Politicians and bureaucrats who clamp down on anonymity sometimes claim that an absence of anonymity has no adverse effect on freedom of speech. This is an outright lie; without anonymity, there is no freedom of speech at all.

Freedom of speech is one of the central tenets of what we consider modern society. The soapbox on street corners with the people speaking their mind – even if usually to an empty audience – are more than lone eccentrics; they symbolize the essence of a free battle of ideas, where the best ones eventually make it to policy.

This is a very idealized way of looking at a democratic nation, but it is still an ideal to strive for: the concept that anybody may state any opinion, and if that opinion is interesting and entertainingly expressed, may get an audience and a following. “Anybody” here is really supposed to be just that – a European Commissioner, a Fortune-500 CEO, or a 14-year old Pakistani girl alike.

However, this is idealized theory, far from reality.

In the real world, most strings are pulled by vested interests. People who have the most to lose because of progress are, surprisingly and counterintuitively, those who are afforded – and can afford – the most protection from new ideas taking hold. This takes many forms, but the effect of all of it is that those who state opinions, facts, or discoveries that threaten vested interests are sometimes made to suffer for it, even – and this is important – even if those ideas or opinions are completely in the right, and if humanity as a whole would benefit from them.

The world is run by vested interests. Mostly, at least.

This is why anonymity is such a key tenet of freedom of speech. You’ll find no shortage of these vested interests who claim to support freedom of speech, but in the same breath, add that everybody must also be held “accountable for their opinions”. This is not freedom of speech; this is the complete opposite of freedom of speech.

“Freedom of speech” is really shorthand for “Freedom from repercussions for speaking one’s mind.”

If people are made to suffer because their opinion can topple entrenched interests, then those opinions will be withheld. But entrenched interests aren’t supposed to be running the world; a free and open battle of publicly evaluated ideas and evidence is.

That’s why anonymity is so vitally important: it separates the opinions, statements, ideas, and studies from somebody who can be made to suffer for publishing them. People and vested interests who hate progress would like to make progress suffer, and have the monetary means to do so – but without the crucial ability to associate that progress to a person with the ability to suffer, no money is able to hold back good ideas.

Consider that a constitutionally protected freedom of speech was never needed to express popular ideas in the mainstream. It’s the power-threatening ideas, the offensive ideas, even the dangerous ideas, that require – and deserve – such protection. Nobody ever needed to call upon the authority of the Constitution to claim that fluffy kittens are cute.

To illustrate how bastardized the concept of “freedom of speech” can get by those who seek to express the complete opposite, let’s illustrate with a quote from a more infamous head of state:

“You have freedom of speech, but I cannot guarantee freedom after speech.” — Idi Amin

Freedom of speech is, and has always been, linked to the ability to express yourself without being identified. Without anonymity, there is no freedom of speech.

Meanwhile, your anonymity remains your own responsibility.

About Rick Falkvinge

Rick is Head of Privacy at Private Internet Access. He is also the founder of the first Pirate Party and is a political evangelist, traveling around Europe and the world to talk and write about ideas of a sensible information policy. Additionally, he has a tech entrepreneur background and loves good whisky and fast motorcycles.

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