Anonymous speech could be caught in the online abuse crossfire

Over at Wired, I wrote a piece earlier this month responding to reports from Tor users that they were having trouble using Twitter anonymously. It bears noting that we don’t really know what exactly Twitter’s up to, but given the timing of these events (and the fact that they can be consistently, if not universally, reproduced), it seems that this might be an attempt to crack down on abuse.

Not only will that not work, but it would do real harm to valuable speech that relies on anonymity. From the article:

Unfortunately, some voices can be so profoundly silenced by a pierced veil of anonymity that they won’t be around to protest unannounced updates. For instance, activists and journalists in countries where Twitter is forbidden use Tor to circumvent the censorship technology that blocks the site, and to do so without being traceable by the national internet service providers and phone network operators. Changes that make it harder to use Twitter and Tor in combination end up doing real harm to some of the speech that is most marginalized.

The fact that we can’t tell for sure whether Twitter has targeted this speech intentionally raises more issues about the transparency we need to see in online algorithms. But even if this is an unintentional side-effect of a different policy, it’s important to recognize that hindering anonymous speech in any case comes at a great cost.