Anonymity on the internet has gotten a bad rap lately, and for good reason. The shield of anonymity has contributed to a toxic online ecosystem that is too often marred by cyberbullying, misinformation and other social ills. Removing anonymity has the potential to foster accountability and trust. This is not lost on tech executives, some of whom have enthusiastically advocated the removal of anonymity over the past decade. As early as 2010, Facebook’s marketing director argued that “online anonymity has to go away.” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky echoed this sentiment in a 2013 interview, arguing that “When you remove anonymity, it brings out the best in people.”
But this overlooks an important fact: The internet needs some anonymity. To see why, consider the evolution of online marketplaces. Early marketplaces like eBay enabled arm’s-length transactions between buyers and sellers with a platform in the middle. This led to gains not only in economic efficiency but also, in some cases, equity. The relatively anonymous nature of online transactions removed markers of race, gender and other factors that sometimes were used to discriminate against customers in conventional transactions.