Client Anonymity with Online Counseling
Anonymity may be an advantage for online counseling — but it is also a hot button issue.
One researcher describes the Internet as a phenomenon where persons “communicate without the distractions of race, gender, age, size, or physical deformity or impairment,” and in defending the usefulness of anonymity, points to the civil rights rallies of the 1960’s, suggesting these important events would have not been possible if protestors were required to “identify themselves at the door.” 51
While it is important to note that some ethics codes regard client identification as necessary (ACA, for instance), the issue of anonymity and identification runs deeper than age, location, and social security number. For example, although a client may be required to provide their demographic information, with online counseling many other client characteristics (e.g., appearance, race, dress, or disability) are still protected—to be revealed only at the client’s discretion.
However, some contend that ascertaining a client’s identity should not be an ethical mandate at all, claiming one’s choice to remain anonymous is an intrinsic human right. Nearly 250 years ago Benjamin Franklin spoke on the tension between anonymity and security stating, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”52 The American Library Association (ALA), in their code of ethics, specifies their policy on intellectual freedom stating, “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.”53
Moreover, George Radwanski, the privacy commissioner of Canada, in 2003 stated passionately in a speech on privacy rights:
We calibrate what we reveal about ourselves to others. Most of us are willing to have a few things known about us by a stranger, more by an acquaintance, and the most by a very close friend or a romantic partner. The right not to be known against our will — indeed, the right to be anonymous except when we choose to identify ourselves — is at the very core of human dignity, autonomy and freedom. If we allow the state to sweep away the normal walls of privacy that protect the details of our lives, we will consign ourselves to living in a fishbowl. Even if we suffered no other specific harm as a result, that alone would profoundly change the way we live our lives. Ask anyone who has lived in a totalitarian society. But there also will be tangible, specific harm.54
Very powerful and moving words — and the conclusion is that if one agrees that persons occupy the right to remain anonymous when seeking information, or even mental health treatment, the intrinsic anonymous nature of online counseling could be constituted as advantageous to maintaining this right.
That being said, anonymity is nothing new to counseling. Anonymous magazine mental health advice columns have been present since 1930 when Dr. Karl Menninger produced a column for the Ladies Home Journal titled “Mental Hygiene in the Home.”55 Also, one of the first online counseling services, called “Dear Uncle Ezra,” was developed in 1986 by Cornell University (see http://ezra.cornell.edu).
This service allows queries from anonymous students to an anonymous counselor! The counselor responds to the submitter’s question or issue via a public Internet post. After almost 30 years this program is still active and users confirm that if it were not for the anonymous format, their fears, concerns, and dilemmas would never have been revealed.
However, some might look upon anonymity with suspicion, or assume anyone desiring to remain anonymous while seeking counseling is psychotic, wanting to live out a fantasy. One individual representing the ethics committee of a well known counseling association, referencing Online Counseling, stated that he would not consider counseling a person wishing to remain anonymous “with a 10 foot pole” (Personal Communication, 2003). I fear this policy may do a disservice to many scared and hurting persons.
52 as cited in Worona, (2003).
53 American Library Association (1995, June). Code of ethics of the American Library Association, Retrieved September 01, 2005 from http://www.ala.org
54 Radwanski, G. (2003, February). Privacy at a crossroads. The Frontiers of Privacy and Security: New Challenges for a New Century conference, Presented by the Corporate Privacy & Information Access Branch and the IT Security, Common IT Services Branch of the B.C. Ministry of Management Services, Retrieved September 01, 2005
55 Slavich, S. (2003).
51 Worona, S. (2003). Privacy, security, and anonymity: An evolving balance. Educause Review, 38(3), 62-63.