Cafe Balkan spy
Cafe Balkan spy, photo: Pescanik

A couple of days ago, addressing the threats and insults against Aleksandar Vucic on the internet, the minister of the interior, Aleksandar Vulin, said that anonymity on the internet is “the source of all filth” and that that’s why he thinks that “anonymity on the internet should be abolished” and that we should adopt a law which forbids people from opening an account on social networks without entering accurate personal data. This statement drew the attention of the media and several reporters asked me to comment. To one of them, who asked me to briefly comment on the minister’s suggestion, I said that I can do that with only one word – hypocritical. 

The subject of anonymity in public activities, and particularly on the internet, is not new. The conflict between those for and against it has been ongoing for some time.

The main argument of those in favor of anonymity is that it allows complete freedom of expression. It empowers those who are afraid to speak up, which is particularly important in non-democratic regimes, where one could pay a heavy price for words the government doesn’t like. Even in democratic societies, it is very important for marginalized and vulnerable social groups, because it removes the fear of consequences for speaking out publically.

The main argument of those against anonymity, who are, fortunately, a great minority, is that it also allows illegal activities, abuse, slander and insults and should, therefore, be eliminated.

In democratic countries, anonymity is an integral part of the freedom of expression doctrine. In many societies (particularly Anglo-Saxon, but not only those), courts have confirmed the position that the speech of anonymous authors is part of democratic tradition and that it represents protection from the tyranny of the majority.

Basically, the most serious argument against anonymity is that it allows lack of accountability. However, an equally serious counterargument is that anonymity is far from absolute and that each country has its legal methods to find out a person’s identity when laws have been broken. 

The solution proposed by minister Vulin is extremely rare, or more accurately unheard of. The only remotely similar example I can think of happened in South Korea about 15 years ago. In an attempt to reduce the risk of slander, false rumors and insults, this country adopted a law which ordered highly popular internet portals to collect their users’ ID numbers. However, a couple of years later (during which many such websites were hacked, which endangered the personal data they had collected from their users), the Constitutional court declared the law unconstitutional. As a rationale, it stated that there is no evidence that the law has fulfilled initial expectations and that the practice of mandatory use of users’ real names decreases freedom of speech and discourages people from expressing their opinion.

However, this law referred only to comments on the most visited portals, and not to all accounts on the Internet. Implementation of Vulin’s proposal would face unsolvable problems not only on the legal level, but also practical, technical and technological issues. In fact, it would be completely impossible to do this, something that Vulin himself almost certainly knows.

But this is not why I labeled it as hypocritical. I have far more serious reasons.

Those reasons are elaborated on in a study by Stanford University published earlier this year, titled “Fighting Like a Lion for Serbia”, which was completely ignored by Serbia’s pro-government media. The study focuses on blatant misuse of anonymity on the internet in Serbia, which occurs on a shocking scale. It was for this reason that Twitter deleted around 8,500 bot accounts from Serbia, a network whose sole purpose was to promote one man and his party, while at the same time brutally attacking and insulting his opponents. This network produced about 43 million tweets. Several millions of fake positive comments about this person and his party, but also hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of disqualifications, insults and more or less (un)disguised threats directed at his political opponents.

The person this network of twitter bots glorified is the same one Vulin is trying to protect – Aleksandar Vucic. And threats and insults are directed at not only the leaders of opposition parties, but also many others (including myself) who dared to criticize him and his party.

This proposal to forbid anonymity on the internet, which came from a high representative of the very political establishment which created and used the erased network of bots (which became (in)famous worldwide), is not worthy of comment from a legal, technical, or technological perspective. One word is sufficient – hypocritical.

The author is a lawyer and a former Commissioner for information of public importance and protection of personal data

Translated by Marijana Simic

Pešč, 04.12.2020.