Banning anonymous online speech is a really, really bad idea2012-05-25
There is no doubt that anonymity enables most of the truly heinous actions taken online. Anonymity also enables people living in repressive regimes to communicate what’s happening in their countries. In Egypt, anonymous bloggers spoke out against the Mubarak regime. Those who were identified were dragged from their homes and thrown in jail. Anonymity was their only protection.
New York isn’t exactly a repressive regime, but there are other legitimate and necessary uses of anonymity right here at home. There was, for example, the wife of the Electronic Arts employee who chronicled workplace abuses, leading to change. Had she identified herself, her husband most likely would have lost his job.
Ignoring these types of situations, the New York State Senate and Assembly have both introduced bills that would “amend civil rights law” to protect “a person’s right to know who is behind an anonymous Internet posting.” Under the provisions of these pieces of legislation, web admins would have to delete comments posted anonymously to their sites unless the commenter agrees to “attach his or her name to the post and confir that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate.” Included in the bill are any sites based in New York, including “social networks, blog forums, message boards or any other discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, on a page dedicated to anonymity, reminds us that the U.S. Supreme Court, time and time again, has upheld the right to anonymous free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Wired’s report on its Threat Level blog notes that one of the sponsors (a Republican) claims it would “help lend some accountability to the Internet age.” Sounds more like a threat to free speech to me. Baseless political attacks and mean-spirited commentary—cited by another Republican legislator to justify the legislation—is the price we pay to enable people to speak freely without fear of being persecuted for what they express.
The First Amendment wasn’t written to protect speech that doesn’t offend anybody. And while there are limits to free speech—you can’t slander or libel somebody, or cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for example—thin skin and hurt feelings aren’t enough to justify an erosion of free speech.