Staying Anonymous Online
Internet anonymity is, in essence, the subject of internet privacy and its issues. Internet anonymity is basically the method by which people send messages and conduct business via the Internet without revealing their true identity. The information that they do reveal is controlled by the user him or herself. It includes the obvious personal information, however maintaining Internet anonymity extends far beyond the user: it includes computer information and location as well. To maintain Internet anonymity means to utilize the Internet without giving anyone the ability to trace or link web activity, or personal information, back to the user.
Those who are concerned about Internet anonymity often discuss several risks to personal privacy. Cookies are among the most talked about privacy risk. Cookies are text sent to a web browser about a site or page that has been visited. The text is stored by the computer's server and sent back every time that particular web page is revisited. It makes for downloading the page quicker since the computer accessing the page is authenticated by the cookie. Cookies also contain specific information about the user, such as preferences, passwords, log-in IDs and even electronic shopping cart information. This is why the cookie is considered a privacy risk by Internet users, and has thus been disabled by many computer owners prior to surfing the web.
Advocates for Internet anonymity argue that it is the most important aspect of free speech on the Internet. Anonymity allows for Internet users to express themselves freely without worry of being discovered or tracked, ridiculed, or harassed. This is important to online discussions and forums, especially those involving personal questions or topics, in which those participating do not want to have to admit who or where they are. A perfect example of the importance of such anonymity is in medical forums where patients are free to ask medical questions of doctors or others with similar medical afflictions. Advocates also maintain that Internet anonymity is essential for transmitting information that must remain anonymous. The reporting of illegal activities and criminal behavior via the Internet is also an example of how vital anonymity can be: it gives witnesses and reporters the comfort and security necessary to offer their testimony.
Opponents argue that certain abuses and illegal activities are perpetuated by available Internet anonymity. Spam, or unsolicited email, is a common abuse of Internet anonymity. Most spam emails are junk mail and non-threatening; however, there have been cases where spam has been utilized to communicate hate-speech, threats, and harassment, and the anonymity of such spam has made it difficult, if even impossible, to track their originators. Opponents also debate that anonymity protects criminals and sexual predators. These offenders utilize the forums and discussions groups that protect the identity of all users to target their prey via the Internet.
The reality of Internet anonymity is that it will be a subject of heated discussion for years to come. Fortunately there exist avenues that Internet users can take to protect their identity, preferences, and IP addresses, if anonymity is important to them. Disabling cookies is common choice and some web browsers, like Mozilla Firefox and Opera, have a setting that automatically deletes all cookies at the end of an Internet session. Overall, users need to remain cognizant of what information they provide on the Internet, including that in on-line screen names and profiles, if they want to maintain anonymity while using the web.