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Pseudonymous Economy: Privacy 3.0 or Privity?

In this article, I have discussed the idea of a Pseudonymous Economy in the digital world, and its role in affecting human digital privacy. The idea is ever-evolving, and it would become intriguing to estimate its scope and reach.

The concept of a Pseudonymous Economy was first coined by the angel investor and entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan. In his own words, he defined the Pseudonymous Economy as the following in an article for The Hub:

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“The Pseudonymous Economy is the foundation for muscular classical liberalism that is capable of standing up in today’s information environment. Rather than make naive appeals to people to look past gender or race, or to not cancel or to not discriminate online, instead we make it impossible to do that by taking away that information entirely with realistic avatars and fully functional pseudonyms.”

Thus, the Pseudonymous Economy builds the foundation of an ideal world, wherein it becomes impossible to discriminate against an individual’s identity, be it any, or any other factor that may be used to discriminate amongst individuals, due to the existence of pseudonyms and avatars that people may use to interact with each other without being face to face and keeping a segment of their identity private to their own selves. In a legal sense, the Pseudonymous Economy brings another layer of personal privacy to an individual’s enjoyment of life. Thus, as the Right to Privacy was recognized as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India of 1949, it could be a fore coming case wherein the Right to Pseudonymity could be recognised from an operative angle.

Photo by 8machine _ on Unsplash

Some Thoughts on the Indian Case of Privacy Right(s)

Privacy has been a continuously evolving concept, which has started to overlap uncomfortably between several facets of human lives, but mainly in regards to identity and autonomy. Hence, the two terms have been quite scrutinised, quite closely by learned scholars in order to construct definitive understandings around the idea of ‘privacy’ amongst identity and autonomy, let us separate the term ‘privacy’ into various broad categories, especially information privacy, and decisional privacy.

Information Privacy refers to an individual’s autonomous right to control the ability of strangers on the Internet to disseminate, gain, or use such information about themselves. In furtherance to this, Decisional Privacy, on the other hand, refers to the right to make decisions regarding family, intimate relations, and other private affairs. It is interestingly observed that the current Indian jurisprudence has only been able to recognise ‘Decisional Privacy’ as a fundamental right. The Right to Information Privacy might just be coming around.

The Concept and its Dimensions

Balaji, under the concept of a Pseudonymous Economy, creates a vast distinction between three terms - pseudonymity, anonymity, and reality. He went on to state the following:

1. The Pseudonym is used on sites like Reddit and Twitter

2. The Anonym is used on sites like 4chan that are designed to be anonymous

3. The Real name is used on platforms like Facebook

As he went ahead to state the essential characteristics that a Pseudonymous Economy possesses, it became clear that such a concept has lively reflections worldwide. His contribution, interestingly, has paved way to refine the construct which has emerged as a phenomenon in the cyberspace. With this, he elaborates the following:

1. The phenomenon/concept is already mainstream, i.e., the basic idea is already pervasive both online (usernames) and offline (nicknames and changed names)

2. It is where the society is heading towards

3. It is not anonymity

4. It is essential to decentralization

5. It is a continuum, having degrees of pseudonymity

This can be understood by seeing and observing threads and comments on microblogging and ecosystem platforms, where it becomes apparent that (for example, Twitter and Instagram), where people quarrel on trivial issues. Even if the issue is contentious, they are increasingly, due to the reach they need to converse, or the mental effect of the discourse on the platforms, or any other reasons as may persist, being reactionary in engagements. Even on LinkedIn we see similar trends, where hyped or polarised content triumphs over nuanced takes on professional, personal and business affairs. Start-ups and even some blockchain platforms, also for example are subjected to banter and ranting, via coordinated marketing campaigns, which is nothing new in the business world. The new thing which is observant is the sophisticated tendency and dissimulation of the algorithms, which drive such discourse. Yet, human bias and algorithmic bias, have to be always taken into proportionate consideration.

Freedom After Speech?

As a solution to the whole scenario, Balaji Srinivasan’s conception of a Pseudonymous Economy in the digital world could remain (and even become) escalating into the state of human anonymity or pseudonymity as the baseline to promote protected communication, engagement and discourse in and via digital platforms. To be more specific, a Pseudonymous Economy grants one the right of ‘Freedom After Speech.’ This means that a real person who is casually operating under a pseudonym can feel free to share their own opinions without having any apprehension of fear to his/her reputation, in regards to their real identity. In a similar way, the social media “groups” will not be able to trace such person back and threaten the safety of the individual who is using a part of technology belong to a Pseudonymous Economy.

Let us remind ourselves of the proposition kept by Prof. Daniel Solvoe in his book, ‘The Digital Person,’ in which he summarises various kinds of methods that are being used to collect personal information online and how it puts the targeted individual at risk. Thus, it is safe to say that when a person operates under a pseudonym, the person is partially safe from being identified and tracked down, which reduces the chances of online stalking and retrieving confidential information that is private to you. However, when one operates while giving disclosure to their real name (original identity), it becomes easy to identify as well as tracking the person down. An example of this may be through the use of LinkedIn, the networking platform which uses real names, rather than pseudonyms. Additionally, it must also be mentioned that such techniques for pushing back against these invasive actions by way of a Pseudonymous Economy, i.e., another type of technique for ensuring electronic anonymity may be seen as direct responses to institutional digital surveillance, as was also noted by, Diana Saco, the author of Cybering Democracy.

An example of this type of pseudonymity may be Satoshi Nakamoto or Corpse Husband, whom we know are real personalities, but behind pseudonyms who consistently maintain a certain kind of anonymity, along with reputation. This is because although a real person may be operating under a username in Twitter or Instagram, but the same usernames also hold reputation if being used for a prolonged period of time.

Understanding the Administrative and Regulatory Dilemmas

However, an essential factor of concern that has been missed in the instant mix of scenarios is the regulation of pseudonymity in case users become reactionary in groups or severally. The world is not unknown to the effect of issues-based laws not codified and regulations not developed anyways. Nevertheless, it is appropriate that even those settled norms, laws, regulations and principles, which exist in a realtime scenario, must be treated in a clinical fashion to generate better jurisprudence via courts, or via parliamentary committee briefings, to see how various stakeholders address and approach emerging legal questions. Considering Prof. Roger Brownsword’s book Law 3.0, and his views on a regulatory in the information age, it is obvious to discern that no institution (public, private) is a monolith.

Still, let us assume that we should try achieving a Pseudonymous Economy via a set of laws and regulations, generating the Degrees of Pseudonymity would become the first obvious dilemma. Under this concept, it is understood that an individual cannot attain “air-tight” protection in favour of their real personality. Thus, the individual can attain some pseudonymity in some proportions, in certain dimensions of reference points (financial, governmental, economic, business, academic, etc.,) as well as in the avatars formed under a Pseudonymous Economy. This could help governments we can then track the actual person who may be responsible for the interventions.

To understand this better, we must also look at the concept of the 33 Bits, which reportedly assists you in measuring the degree of pseudonymity. There are approximately seven and a half billion people on the planet, and two to the 33rd power is approximately eight billion. So, with just 33 bits of information, you can completely de-anonymize someone and track them down. In the same context, if you have ten bits of information about someone, they are inside a set of two to the tenth, or approximately a thousand people. Similarly, if you have 20 bits, that is approximately two to the twentieth – or approximately a million people. This example in some way shows that pseudonymity exists on a mere scale inside the 33 Bit range.

Such Degrees of Pseudonymity, however, remain to be a varying choice to persons known to the Pseudonymous Economy. This means that there exists no concrete form of law in regards to the appropriate Degrees of Pseudonymity and the safety factor while operating under a Pseudonymous Economy. Additionally, however, as the Pseudonymous Economy is slowly legitimized after discussions like such and constant endeavours to address such challenges, it will have to be advocated properly by introducing laws which recognise some kind of safety measures. It could however, be related with the phenomenon of Soft Law (Law 3.0) as well. Maybe, we should ponder upon the questions as to how we understand human digital privacy in parallelism to human digital privity.

Further Readings Diana Saco, Cybering Democracy: Public Space and the Internet 119 (University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 2002) Daniel J. Solvoe, The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age 23 (New York University Press, New York, 2006). Ken D. Kumayama, “A Right to Pseudonymity” 51 Arizona Law Review 427 (2009).