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Songs on the Security of Networks
a blog by Michał "rysiek" Woźniak

Public consultations and anonymity

This is an ancient post, published more than 4 years ago.
As such, it might not anymore reflect the views of the author or the state of the world. It is provided as historical record.

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.

The Problem

Anonymity in a discussion has some advantages:

  • higher comfort of voicing opinions – the participants don’t have to consider what their spouse, boss or priest thinks of what they have to say; nor do they have to be concerned with potential government retribution for opinions that are not in-line with the “party line”;
  • higher capacity to change opinions – as one of the attendees noted, anonymous participants are more likely and willing to admit error and change their opinion based on facts and subject matter arguments;
  • reasoning instead of personal connections – anonymity allows the discussion to move beyond personal connections, relations and animosities, and focus more on subject matter arguments and facts.

Obviously, there are also important drawbacks:

  • trolling – likely to be present in any exchange of ideas, trolls are especially drawn to on-line discussions, and anonymity is a strong contributing factor;
  • mandate – it is hard to ascertain that every member to an anonymous public debate has mandate to partake in it (consider a participatory budgeting debate in a local community: non-residents shouldn’t be able to influence the decision);
  • lack of transparency – participants can voice their own opinion, but can work in the interest of particular companies or groups of interests as well; while this is fine, transparency is crucial in a democratic society: information how a given interest group lobbied might important for the final decision, and it is non-trivial to provide accountability and transparency in an anonymous decision making process;
  • sock-puppets – with anonymous participation, what is to stop certain participants, companies or interests groups from using multiple artificial identities to sway the decision?

Would it be possible to have the anonymous cookie and eat it too, though?

Shades of anonymity

First of all, it is worth reminding that there are several shades shades of anonymity, depending on:

  • what data is anonymized (e.g. affiliation, full name, address, gender, etc.);
  • with regard to whom is it anonymized (e.g. other participants to a given discussion, discussion organizers, observers, public institutions, media, etc.);
  • at what stage of the discussion the data is anonymized (e.g. only during the discussion but available it ends, entirely and with regard to the whole discussion and all of its effects, only after the discussion has concluded, etc.).

Additionally, statements in a discussion can be:

  • not being signed at all, allowing for full anonymity – this way participants don’t can’t even know if any two statements were made by the same person, or different persons;
  • signed with a discussion-specific identifier (e.g. a random number), hiding the identity of authors, but making it possible to see which statements in a given discussion (but not beyond) are made by the same person;
  • signed with a global identifier in all discussions on a given platform (again: for example a random number or UUID), making it possible to check all statements a given person made in all discussions, but still not divulging their identity.

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.

Different tools, different aims

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:

  • general elections are partially anonymous (participants are identified to ascertain their mandate, but the vote itself is secret, so that it is impossible to attribute a given ballot to a given voter), while at the same time being very general, high-level and not really binding with regard to particular decisions to be made by representatives (as anybody who voted on a politician just to see them back-pedal from their election-time promises knows full well);
  • consensus meetings around a particular issue are meant to be non-anonymous, fully transparent and accountable (every participant is required to give their name and affiliation), because they are to a large degree binding and concrete.

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).