Being Anonymous on the Internet Is a Good Thing

What would the internet be without anonymity? Even in the shadow of Facebook’s misguided cause to eliminate this invaluable aspect of the online experience, the right to stay anonymous on the in...
Being Anonymous on the Internet Is a Good Thing
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  • What would the internet be without anonymity? Even in the shadow of Facebook’s misguided cause to eliminate this invaluable aspect of the online experience, the right to stay anonymous on the internet is an indispensable facet on which ye olde innerwebs was built.

    True, it does appear that, more and more, the sanctity of anonymity gets abused and debased because people use it to spitefully troll around harassing people on the internet and leaving repugnant if not violent and intimidating messages that do have real emotional effects on the target. Still, people aren’t acting like jerks because the internet provides an anonymous platform anymore than having a middle finger causes people to flip unsightly gestures at people. People were jerks and offensive long before the internet (and before middle fingers, presumably).

    So no sooner would you start lopping off people’s middle fingers because you think it will make them nicer people should you assume that de-anonymizing the internet will make people play nicer with each other online. The New York State Assembly apparently missed that newsletter, though, as it has introduced a bill that would effectively end any right to remain anonymous on the internet when posting comments to blogs, social networks, or other message boards based in the state.

    The bill, which was introduced by New York State Senator Tom O’Mara, would mandate website administrators to remove any comments from a site where the author of the comment failed to identify themselves. The bill goes beyond just name-dropping, though:

    A web site administrator upon request shall remove any comments posted on his or her web site by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate [emphasis mine]. All web site administrators shall have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any sections where comments are posted.

    Not only does the language of this bill bar anyone from replying to forums on the internet with the simple place-holder name of “anonymous,” but it could be interpreted that any online moniker that you’ve chosen to accentuate your pizzaz would also not be allowed. In other words, should such a concept be ratified into law, every website based in the state of New York would suddenly witness its comment sections become barren, tumbleweed-driven ghost towns that nobody is willing to venture into.

    The bill accompanies a similar proposal from New York Assemblyman Dean Murray, who is co-sponsoring O’Mara’s bill, that was introduced last year.

    Being anonymous is what originally made the internet appealing, what made it cool: you could do anything and be anybody you wanted to. Facebook thinks they “fixed” this, but that’s a fallacy and problematic. You should never not be able to be anonymous on the internet. Hell, the unofficial enforcers of internet transparency and jurisprudence that make up the hackivist collective Anonymous took the word as its name because, aside from keeping those members safe from governments looking to gain retribution, it embodies the central, intrinsic tenet of the internet: nobody should know who you are unless you want them to know.

    Aside from being the foremost communication privilege of the internet, the right to retain your online anonymity guarantees your privacy – at least, as private as you can manage to be on the internet of 2012. With online privacy being as scarce and endangered as whale sharks are these days, the ramifications of such a bill would add to the corrosive efforts to take the right to privacy away from you.

    Sarah A. Downey, a privacy analyst with Abine, says that there’s no way such a bill could even be considered constitutional. “The First Amendment protects most speech, including anonymous speech, so there’s no way a court would uphold this law,” she told WebProNews. She pointed to the Supreme Court’s decision in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, a case wherein Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority opinion declaring that the freedom to publish anonymously is protected by the First Amendment.

    O’Mara has his heart in the right place in trying to combat cyberbullying and improve accountability among internet users. He says that the comments would only be considered for removal upon request but the language in the actual bill, as evidenced in the above excerpt, does not make such provisions. It simply says you won’t post anonymously to websites.

    Bills like this aren’t going to stiff-arm internet users into being more civil. People have been acting like incorrigible buttholes since they first learned to open their mouths and make noises fall out. More, many of the cyberbullying incidents that occur these days happen on Facebook when people are clearly attached to whatever vitriol they’re flinging at other Facebook users.

    The bill also invites some unbalanced policing of comments on websites. As Gizmodo points out, the bill doesn’t appear to require likewise identification of anybody who flags an anonymous comment. More, what are the guidelines to define what is considered inflammatory or defamatory comments on websites? People on the internet famously love to interpret disagreement as a personal affront to their delicate sensibilities and, with this New York bill, could likely request comments be removed on the simple basis that it exposes their arguments as erroneous or embarrassing.

    Logistically, implementing this bill doesn’t even seem feasible. Can you imagine the administrative nightmare if a site like Facebook had to create a toll-free phone number so that people could call and complain about the content they feel was directed to them on a public Facebook page? The sheer volume, both in size and in sound, would probably bump the planet out its cozy orbit.

    Even if the authors of this bill were able to construct a rubric for what qualifies as cyberbullying or deceptively derogatory comments, qualifying those guidelines couldn’t be done objectively. It just can’t. Plus, sometimes people step out of line and earn themselves the necessity to hear some harsh words. Sorry, but it’s true.

    This bill does too little to actually combat cyberbullying but, ironically, does just enough to step on the First Amendment protection of free speech, even to anonymous trolls marauding around the internet. Downey punctuated this elegantly, saying, “The strongest protection of the First Amendment is for the speech that we don’t like. If you don’t have that protection, then you don’t have any freedom of speech.”

    (This article has been updated from its original form. It was edited to add the comments from Ms. Downey.)

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