thinking is dangerous — it leads to ideas
thinking is dangerous — it leads to ideas
Member of the Board of the Polish Linux Users Group. Human rights in digital era hacktivist, Free Software advocate, privacy and anonimity evangelist; expert volunteer to the Panoptykon Foundation; co-organizer of SocHack social hackathons; charter member of the Warsaw Hackerspace; and Telecomix co-operator; biker, sailor.
Formerly President of the Board of the Polish Free and Open Source Software Foundation; CTO of BRAMA Mobile Technologies Laboratory on Warsaw University of Technology and a student at Philosophy Institute on Warsaw University.
The problem of anonymity — and a connected issue of representativeness — in public consultations (and wider: generally in public debate) seem to be a Gordian knot. On one hand, anonymity is indicated as necessary for a truly independent discourse; on the other, in invites behaviour that is far from desirable.
We tried to tackle this issue (both in the panels and during the workshops) at the Nowe perspektywy dialogu ("New perspectives of dialogue") conference, held within the framework of the W Dialogu ("In Dialogue") project — in which the FOSS Foundation cooperates with the Institute of Sociology at the University of Warsaw.
Anonymity in a discussion has some advantages:
Obviously, there are also important drawbacks:
Would it be possible to have the anonymous cookie and eat it too, though?
First of all, it is worth reminding that there are several shades shades of anonymity, depending on:
Additionally, statements in a discussion can be:
The first of these makes it impossible to follow a conversation (no way to be sure if we're answering the same person, or some other participant). The second one allows for a better structuring of a given discussion, and to more easily follow the exchange of ideas. Last one doesn't really differ from pseudonymity (apart from the fact that the identifier is chosen by the system, instead of the participants themselves), hence it makes it possible for participants to build identities of sorts within a given platform.
Anonymity is a certain tool that can help us achieve certain goals, if we use it with care. How?
Polish Data Protection Supervisor, dr Wiewiórowski, made a simple yet powerful distinction: anonymity makes sense and is very useful in general, high-level consultation processes. As soon as we start consulting particular documents and discuss specifics, commas and numbers, transparency and accountability are much more important — as this is where particular interests really come into play, and we need ways to follow these very closely in a democratic society.
This was further supplemented by a thesis that a fully anonymous public consultation process needs to be evaluated with regard to subject matter by the consultation organisers, and its result should be treated as a guideline rather than a definite decision. If a given process is to be completely binding, it needs to be completely transparent.
Hence on one axis we have a whole spectrum of anonymity of public consultation processes, on the other — a spectrum of how general or particular a given process is and how binding it should be. We also know that there is a strong correlation between the two axes: the more detailed and binding a given consultation process is, the more transparency and accountability is needed, hence less anonymity for its participants.
This correlation, I would say, is extremely powerful in organizing the discussion around anonymity in public consultations. It also means that it is impossible to make a decision about anonymity in a given consultation process without deciding first what kind of a process it is supposed to be. This is also crucial to all attempts at creating tools aiming to support such processes.
It's worth noting we already have examples of quasi-consultation processes from both ends of the spectrum:
Another interesting example is the Chatham House Rule:
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
Hence, during a meeting governed by the Rule participants are not anonymous to each other (which solves the problem of representativeness, helps structure the discussion better, etc), but after the meeting all participants can expect full anonymity with regard to who said what (which in turn helps make the discussion more open, honest and not tied-in with particular interests of participants' affiliations).