“Do the features of anonymity and connectivity free the darker sides of our nature?” Jamie Bartlett, The Dark Net, 2014.
The Internet has nearly always been an unrestricted space where people can present themselves with any identity. Anonymity online is either considered as a blessing or a curse, it is protective but it is also dangerous.
One of the most valuable aspects of anonymity online is that it allows freedom of speech. Concealment of real identity means that individuals feel empowered to liberate their voice without having to fear the repercussions. People are often able to challenge political barriers with views that could put them in danger.
Anonymity also allows people to discuss sensitive issues, subjects that some may shield in real life, such as religion, mental illness, sexual orientation. The expression of feelings online often lifts the burden in real life.
The nature of the Internet means that people behave seemingly as they please, and not necessarily how they would do in real life. Individuals link being anonymous to being undetectable and therefore not accountable for their actions online. This is where we start to see the destructive side effects of anonymity.
Anonymity is the best disguise for most cyber criminals. More often than not, criminals cannot be traced as layers of encryption mask them. Most of the illegal activity occurring via the Internet is, at first glance, obscured or hidden.
Cyber criminals legitimise their illegal online behaviour by separating the virtual world from reality. Users of the dark-net hide behind their computer screens and rarely face up to the severity of the crimes. In particular, the Internet has significantly changed the way many sex offenders operate, with an alarming number of cases now involving an element of interaction online.
Whether this is the sharing of an image, the grooming of a child or the viewing of live-streamed abuse, we are increasingly seeing paedophiles hiding behind their computer screens.
What is interesting, is that many only act on the fantasies of their online personas via the Internet. They have little or no intention to take part in physical abuse initially. But as they normalise the behaviour over time, many will physically commit the crime, thus fuelling the cycle of online abuse.
To stop child sexual abuse means that we must nip it in the bud quickly before it grows out of control. Whilst possessing and sharing explicit images is still a crime, early offenders are less likely to take part in physical abuse. By halting the spread of illicit content in the first place, we can prevent physical abuse from happening in the long term.
This is the point where the virtual world meets real life where we can make a difference.