Being anonymous on the net: An activist explains how it can be useful

Activist Gayathry Venkiteswaran speaks during the Bar Council forum on the use of social media to express opinion in Kuala Lumpur December 14, 2017. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 15 ― Anonymity on social media is sometimes necessary to protect people from state persecution, an academic said last night.

University of Nottingham associate professor V. Gayathry, who is also a press freedom advocate, admitted that although a discreet identity might give rise to remarks which are juvenile or criminally intimidating in cyberspace, it was up to the authorities to deal with such problems.

“To the government, a lot of us are anonymous and I wouldn’t, as a power holder, I wouldn’t want to worry on behalf of the government, to actually give them a lot more powers about knowing our identities.

“In fact, it’s becoming more difficult to be anonymous, but I think the problem is not about anonymity in itself. I think when crimes happen ― that takes advantage of anonymity. But I think we need to recognise that there are many people who can only afford to express their views through anonymous identities or pseudonyms, and I think that is important to recognise,” Gayathry told a forum at the Wisma Straits Trading here.

The forum titled ‘Use of social media to express opinions on the government and public institutions: When is this a criminal offence’ was organised by the Malaysian Bar.

Gayathry pointed out that pseudonyms and anonymity are particularly crucial for minority groups and those often subjected to prosecution, stressing that those who assume such identities should not be judged quickly.

“There are many people who are unable to gather to speak freely, openly, because of their identities, political positions, gender identities.

“You have seen the persecutions against these groups in many countries, and I think anonymity affords them some space to be able to engage in some form of political discussion and representation. So I think, maybe we shouldn’t be too quick to say that anonymity is a problem on its own,” she added.

Gayathry also pointed out that it is getting more difficult to maintain such identities, as the government already has wide powers to identify citizens, via mandatory identity cards, social media account registrations as well as phone registrations.

“I agree with your point that you are actually exposed to a lot of harassment (with greater anonymity), but it is also the role of the state in order to prevent it, which they have failed,” Gayathry told reporters later.