Monday, October 3, 2011

The Right to Remain Anonymous Online Threatened

EFF.Org - In a recent Washington Times editorial titled “Internet trolls, Anonymity and the First Amendment,” Gayle Falkenthal declared that “the time has come to limit the ability of people to remain anonymous” online. She argued that any benefit to online pseudonyms has long since dissipated and anonymous commenters have polluted the Internet “with false accusations and name-calling attacks.” Newspapers, she wrote, should ban them entirely.

This argument is not only inaccurate, it’s also dangerous: online anonymity, while allowing trolls to act with impunity, also protects a range of people, from Syrian dissidents to small-town LGBT activists and plenty of others in between.

Unfortunately, many newspapers have already banned anonymous comments, and while not all have offered an explicit reasoning for their policies, “civility” is often cited as justification in discussions on online anonymity.

Of course, online civil discourse is something to strive for. Anyone who’s spent time reading YouTube comment threads is aware of the vitriolic bile spewing from the keyboards of largely anonymous masses. And it is a truism that when people speak using their true identity, they are more likely to think about the consequences of their speech.

But while identification brings about a greater sense of safety for some, for others, it presents a great risk. Think, for example, of victims of domestic abuse, whose online safety is predicated on not revealing their identity or location. Or the small-town schoolteacher who fears revealing her political views to her local community but seeks solidarity online. Or the gay teenager who wants to explore communities online but isn’t quite ready to come out. Or the myriad other examples compiled by the Geek Feminism blog.

Contrary to Ms. Falkenthal’s assertion that “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, but not anonymity,” the Supreme Court has made these same arguments about safety and anonymity for decades. In 1960, the Court explicitly upheld a speaker’s right to remain anonymous,

In Talley v. California, Justice Black wrote “Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures, and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind. Persecuted groups and sects from time to time throughout history have been able to criticize oppressive practices and laws either anonymously or not at all.”

And in 1995, the Court upheld online speakers’ First Amendment right to remain anonymous, emphasizing, “protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse.” The court went on to say anonymous speech “exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation…at the hand of an intolerant society.”         More