Anonymity and Accountability
posted by:David Matheson // 11:59 AM // January 13, 2006 // Commentary &/or random thoughts
In a very nice article recently drawn to my attention, Bruce Schneier asks us to reconsider the relation between anonymity and accountability. I'm reminded of an interesting exchange on this blog (see here, here, and here) where the discussion focused on the extent to which anonymity and credibility are compatible. There, I drew attention to the following line of reasoning, which I'll here call the "No Credibility Argument":
The No Credibility Argument
Premise 1. If a source is anonymous to you, then you don't know who that source is.
Premise 2. If you don't know who a source is, then you ought not to trust that source.
Conclusion. Therefore, if a source is anonymous to you, then you ought not to trust that source.
I was then, and am still inclined to say that Premise 2 of the No Credibility Argument is pretty implausible. That's because, first, there seem to be various ways in which the credibility of anonymous sources can be supported without revealing the relevant identities of the sources, and, second, having support for credibility of anonymous sources can make it entirely appropriate to trust them. For example, anonymous sources can -- without losing their anonymity -- have their credibility supported by such things as:
(i) the word of other credible sources, who vouch for but do not reveal the identities of the anonymous sources
(ii) our knowledge of the anonymous sources' track-records with respect to their past reports
(iii) the coherence or internal consistency of the anonymous sources' reports.
Compare now a line of reasoning about accountability similar to the No Credibility Argument. Call this parallel line of reasoning the "No Accountability Argument":
The No Accountability Argument
Premise 1. If an agent (i.e. someone engaged in activity) is anonymous to you, then you don't know who that agent is.
Premise 2. If you don't know who an agent is, then you can't hold that agent accountable.
Conclusion. Therefore, if an agent is anonymous to you, then you can't hold that agent accountable.
One way to read what Schneier is up to in his piece is as pointing out, quite effectively, the implausibility of Premise 2 of the No Accountability Argument. Just as there are ways of supporting the credibility of anonymous sources without forcing them to relinquish their anonymity, so there are ways of holding anonymous agents accountable without forcing them to relinquish their anonymity. Schneier provides a nice example:
"In an anonymous commerce system -- where the buyer does not know who the seller is and vice versa -- it's easy for one to cheat the other. This cheating, even if only a minority engaged in it, would quickly erode confidence in the marketplace, and eBay would be out of business. The auction site's solution was brilliant: a feedback system that attached an ongoing 'reputation' to those anonymous user names, and made buyers and sellers accountable for their actions."
Here, in effect, we have something very similar to (i) and (ii) above working to help us hold anonymous agents accountable, through gauging their credibility as sources. I think the question of what other ways -- outside of the likes of (i), (ii), and (iii) above -- accountability and credibility can be obtained while still respecting anonymity is a fascinating one.
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