Leiden Law Blog

The Circle and the Law. How much anonymity do we want?

Posted on by Dirk Visser in Private Law
The Circle and the Law. How much anonymity do we want?

The Circle is the latest novel by Dave Eggers. It is an interesting read for lawyers as well as for anyone else. “The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency”.

Privacy issue is a 30+ problem

During a conference on copyright, held to mark the 100th anniversary of the Dutch copyright collecting society Buma, Andy Zondervan,an advisor on online Business Development at Buma/Stemra stated: the “privacy issue is a 30+ problem”. What he meant is that people under 30 do not care about their privacy. They want to share everything with their friends and possibly with the rest of the world as well.

The message of The Circle is obvious. People under 30 and anyone else using the internet should worry about their privacy, their anonymity, the right to be forgotten and the right to disappear.

What is intriguing about the book is that it is impossible to deny that having more transparency and less anonymity on the internet certainly has considerable advantages. It is hard to deny that at this moment there might be too little anonymity on the internet in some respects. Much of what we do is being monitored, processed and used without our knowledge. On the other hand it is equally hard to deny that there is too much anonymity on the internet. Those who distribute viruses, malware and all other kinds of nasty software can remain anonymous too easily. Those who distribute hateful or slanderous information can do so anonymously. Those who want to stalk and terrorize other people can do so anonymously.

One verified online identity only

If everybody were to have only one verified online identity, it would certainly lead to less unlawful behaviour, to more trust, to more civility on the internet. Everybody could be held accountable for his or her own behavior on the internet. There would be no cursing, no threatening, no cheating, no fraud, no hiding behind anonymous fake identities.

The essential question that every policymaker and every lawyer should ask is: how much anonymity do we want? Would less anonymity on the internet solve many problems? Would it create new ones? Perhaps even more serious ones? Would less anonymity on the internet also lead to less anonymity outside the internet? That is what happens in The Circle. All information in the world gets digitized. Through automatic facial recognition everybody ever photographed or filmed anywhere gets recognized. And because there is camera surveillance everywhere, through tiny cameras, drones and what have you, everybody gets recognized outside the internet as well. Children get GPS-computer chips in their body to make sure that they can never be abducted.

It all sounds threatening and unrealistic. But if children do not part with their mobile phone for a single moment of the day, they are just as traceable as they would be were they to have a GPS- computer chip in their body. Camera surveillance is everywhere.

The ‘head kickers’ in Eindhoven

If someone is caught on camera committing a crime, he or she is quite easily traceable through his or her Facebook account. This was illustrated by the case of the ‘head kickers’ in the Dutch town of Eindhoven. Eight young men seriously abused and injured another young man and kicked him in the head whilst he was lying on the pavement. This was caught on camera. The images were made available on the internet. The eight young men were quickly identified and their photos and names where shown on the internet as well. They were arrested and sentenced to prison sentences of up to ten months. The Court considered the fact that their identities had been disclosed on the internet as a reason to give these men lower sentences. There was considerable criticism against this leniency. There is an appeal pending. But the photographs of these young offenders are still on the internet and it is quite possible that they will stay there forever. Understandably very few people take pity on them. Do they have a right to anonymity? Do they have a right ever to be forgotten? 

A right to be forgotten?

Does Mr. Volkert van der G., the killer of politician Pim Fortuyn, have a right to anonymity and a right to be forgotten or a right to disappear after he has served his prison sentence? And if he did have such a right in theory, is there any chance of him actually achieving this result? Again, maybe not many people take pity on Mr Volkert van der G.

What about Mr. Max Mosley? He had a peculiar rendezvous with some prostitutes. “F1 boss has sick Nazi orgy with 5 hookers”. If you copy/paste this sentence in Google, you will find the video is still available on line. Mr Mosley did not commit a crime. He litigated up to the European Court of Human Rights. But the film is still on line. Has Mr Mosley a right to be forgotten? Does the live leaks website have the right to still offer this film on the internet anonymously?

What about the young law student who was caught on camera when she was very drunk and made some embarrassing remarks. The footage was made available online. She had to go to court three times in order to get it removed permanently . Does she have a right to be forgotten in this respect? Do other people have the right to put the images back on the internet anonymously?

Again: how much anonymity do we want? Read The Circle and think about it.

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