Is online anonymity a necessity for economic and political freedom?

Online anonymity can be abused by trolls, but it remains central to our economic and political freedom, says Dominic Frisby

Close up hand scrolling on a digital tablet at night
(Image credit: Alistair Berg)

A few years ago I wrote a script called Four Murders and Some Funerals, about an old lady who is the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. Seeking revenge, she kills one of the perpetrators by accident, discovers she’s a natural at bumping people off, does away with the other three and becomes a vigilante serial killer – righting wrongs wherever she finds them, usually where the law has failed. 

I still think it was a pretty good script, although it never got made: a bit like Miss Marple, only more savage and retributionist. In any case, in order to write it I had to come up with several original ways in which an old lady might kill people. I had one person pushed down a lift shaft, another electrocuted in the bath, another shot and another poisoned. This all involved quite a bit of research, especially the various poisons. Should our heroine use cyanide, polonium, fentanyl or botulinum, for example? 

For obvious reasons, I wasn’t quite comfortable googling all the questions I had, so I took to Tor and DuckDuckGo for internet anonymity. I’m glad I did because how to murder someone is one heck of an internet rabbit hole to go down. Before long I was reading about hiring Chechen hitmen and Lord knows what else. Clearly, in the grand scheme of things, researching a script about a murderer is a fairly trivial use case for internet anonymity. 

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But I don’t think the day is far away when your internet search history (which Google keeps forever, by the way, unless you take steps to delete it) will be taken into account for things such as insurance risk, profiling, or a Chinese-style social credit score by potential employers and so on. I don’t think several days’ research into how to kill someone bodes particularly well. 

Elon Musk, one of my followers on X, says Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, hopes to impose a law whereby police can retroactively search the internet for “hate speech” violations and arrest people even if the offence occurred before the law existed. But you don’t have to be asking questions about how to kill someone to want anonymity. You might be living under some extreme theological regime, asking questions such as, “Is there a god?”; or under a totalitarian regime, asking questions about freedom; or under a corrupt and incompetent regime, asking questions about vaccine safety. You get the point.   

Why you should protect your online anonymity and reputation  

Anonymity protects you. It limits the power that others have over you and the ability they have to control you. It enables you to protect your reputation, and stop things from being used against you, especially out of context. It gives you greater control over your own data and thus your destiny. But let’s say I did actually want to kill someone, and that I even researched how to do it, before deciding not to. The only crime I would be guilty of is thought. 

But if my search history can be used against me, it doesn’t matter if, 10 years later, I have moved on from my inquiry into researching murder. It’s still there, and if the police or some activist decided to uncover it, I would, in the eyes of many, forever be guilty of murder, even if I had committed no such crime beyond thinking about it – which, I bet, most of us have at some point in our darkest hours. 

For me, the most powerful use case is freedom of thought. Being anonymous is liberating. I’m sure that is why masked balls proved so popular. If you know you are being watched, you are less likely to explore new ideas outside the mainstream, ideas that family, friends, colleagues, or even society may dislike. These may be philosophical, scientific or artistic ideas. We might want to express thoughts we otherwise feel unable to express. 

A lot of things, if judged from a different time or place, by people who lack complete knowledge or understanding, may seem odd or intolerable. Anonymity is a protection against having to worry about how actions are perceived and against constantly having to justify them. Anonymity is the nemesis of censorship. The most compelling contemporary real-life example of why we need internet anonymity must be Satoshi Nakamoto, the presumed founder of Bitcoin. We would not have the cryptocurrency without it. 

We are talking here about one of the most revolutionary technologies ever invented, and one that could fix our broken political and economic systems peacefully. How? Because it enables people to opt out. It provides an alternative money system. “Fix the money, fix the world,” runs the mantra. Remove the state’s monopoly on money, and you reduce its ability to create money at no cost to itself and you limit its ability to do all the terrible things it does. So I favour online anonymity, which is harder to achieve now than it used to be. 

But I also see that this is not a black-and-white issue. Many a murderous act has been plotted anonymously. Certain politicians, celebrities and others get an enormous amount of abuse from anonymous accounts. The privilege of anonymity is abused. “With freedom comes great responsibility”; with anonymity, even more so. Many ministers will care more about the terrorist plotting and the online abuse than they will about the freedom to explore new ideas. And the anonymous are harder to control. So we can expect more and more attempts to prevent anonymity – which will mean it has even greater value.

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Dominic Frisby

Dominic Frisby (“mercurially witty” – the Spectator) is as far as we know the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He is the author of the popular newsletter the Flying Frisby and is MoneyWeek’s main commentator on gold, commodities, currencies and cryptocurrencies. He has also taken several of his shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

His books are Daylight Robbery - How Tax Changed our Past and Will Shape our Future; Bitcoin: the Future of Money? and Life After the State - Why We Don't Need Government

Dominic was educated at St Paul's School, Manchester University and the Webber-Douglas Academy Of Dramatic Art. You can follow him on X @dominicfrisby