The Internet offers users the possibility of anonymity, which allows people to act elusively and namelessly across its vast series of tubes. While online, individuals can use aliases to mask their identities or even to design entire virtual “second lives.” While users do leave their IPs behind, they trust that host sites will safeguard this information, which can be used to reveal their true identities. The power afforded by the Internet’s identity-obscuration has a variety of effects on speech.
One of these effects has been to encourage the expression of otherwise detestable speech. Of the belief that their identities will not be uncovered, individuals may feel enabled by their online anonymity to post material they deem too offensive, provocative, or legally dubious to express in the real world. This effect has manifested itself in countless instances of online hate speech and cyberbullying, both of which can cause tangible harm to their targets. This potential for real harm raises the following question: Can the veil of anonymity enjoyed by Internet users be justifiably removed for the sake of a citizen’s protection?
This is the question posed to the Cook County Circuit Court in a recent case regarding “deeply disturbing” comments made online about the 15-year-old son of Buffalo Grove, IL Village Trustee Lisa Stone. Under the alias “Hipcheck 16,” an individual posted the comments in response to an article written in the Daily Herald on April 6, the day before Village Board elections. Stone went to court to ask Judge Jeffrey Lawrence to give her the identity of Hipcheck 16. The judge did acquire the user’s identity, but he did not relay it to Stone, at least not yet. On November 9, Stone’s attorneys and the anonymous poster’s attorney will present their arguments before the judge, who will then decide whether or not to provide Stone with Hipcheck16’s identity.
ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka weighed in on the case, saying that anonymous speech is an integral part of our society, and must be protected. Noting the anonymously published texts by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, Yohnka pointed out the importance of anonymous speech in the early stages of America’s independence. The case would have broad application to online speech rights, since few cases like it have appeared in American courts, and could possibly restrict the ability of citizens to speak anonymously.
But it seems that this point ignores the capacity of the law to draw a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable anonymous speech. The type of speech Yohnka wishes to protect would be legally protected – however nasty, political speech by definition targets the state and its occupants, not fellow private citizens. There do already exist protections for anonymous speech, but these do not cover defamatory and other speech considered illegal in normal circumstances.
The various contributing lawyers seem to neglect Stone’s main concern in seeking Hipcheck16’s true identity. She sees the case as primarily about the “need to protect children from being attacked on the Internet.” This bring to mind the incident last year of a mother posing as a teenage boy on MySpace, who taunted a 14-year-old girl to the extent that she committed suicide.
While certainly an extreme example, this incident demonstrates to me the necessity of at least some laws governing how individuals interact with one another on the Internet. When there is significant, tangible harm done unto a person by another user, I think there should be punitive action taken against that user, beginning, of course, with his identification. The policy behind this would have to be written sufficiently clear as to not deter anonymous speakers in general. Otherwise, the anonymous political speakers whom the ACLU seeks to protect will suffer. What a surprise: a big obstacle is determining the appropriate language for a law.