Anonymity on the web is taken for granted as a right under the First Amendment – but should it be? “Skanks in NYC” hardly seems comparable to the writers of the Federalist Papers. Anonymity obviously does not come without its benefits: the sense of security in talking under anonymity fosters free speech to its fullest extent. Without fear of recourse, free speech can both flourish, but as we’ve seen in these cases, also grow cancerously. Defamation through anonymous blogs, youtube comments and various profile accounts becomes much more likely when defamers don’t feel like there will be recourse for their speech.
But instead of protecting anonymity, we should protect the ideals behind anonymity, and create laws that protect those ideals (in particular free speech) on their own so that we can eliminate anonymity altogether. If the origins of legal protection for anonymity stem from the democratic value of the federalist papers – the protection of free speech to speak out against the government, a justified democratic concept – then anonymity was only necessary when free speech was in danger. Essentially, anonymity is an extra measure of protection, but one with dangerous side effects on our legal system, ones unnecessary if free speech is already protected in a competent democracy. In fascist regimes, anonymity is the only means to any semblance of free speech. But if we strengthen our legal system so that free speech is in no ways threatened, then we can eliminate the not only cumbersome and extraneous, but legally problematic extra measure of anonymity protection. Instead of working within a faulty legal system, we should change it. Extricating anonymity is not fascist – it’s mature. People in a functioning democracy should be held accountable for their actions, their speeches, etc. Free speech belongs to those people with the boldness to take responsibility for their own voice.
Taking out anonymity protection can have the following effects:
- (a) your free speech won’t constitute defamation in which case there is no recourse for rightfully making use of free speech.
- (b) your blog constitutes defamation in which case there is legal recourse for misuse and misinterpretation of free speech.
- (c) you would have written an offensive, non-defamatory blog post, but because you’re afraid of recourse, censor yourself.
- (d) you would have misused free speech in a way that constitutes defamation, but now, because of fear of recourse do not end up defaming (through blogs, comments etc.)
In these four variations, (c) is the only one in which one might argue that not having anonymity protection resulted in non-democratic censorship. But the difference between defamatory and non-defamatory offensive speech is so simple – whether or not the offensive comment is factually true! Is it too much to ask of our citizens that they don’t outright lie? That they feel confident enough in our government to take responsibility for their actions and don’t preemptively skirt the law?
We shouldn’t endorse this fear of litigation, and encourage a system that protects defamation. Let’s cut the middle man, and instead create a legal environment that protects free speech where people will own up to it. Ambiguous anonymous beings are not the citizens of the United States – we are, as individuals. Do we by fault protect the anonymity of anyone online? With the globalization of the internet, who’s to say that the identity we’re so careful to protect isn’t an American citizen? The legal system as is goes out of its way to protect identities indiscriminately … but that policy doesn’t mimic our legal system which protects its citizens.
The op-ed in the YDN about the women’s center and dke was controversial, I believe, because there was no name attached to it. We should put our names to our words and only then reap the benefits of free speech. Anonymity should still be allowed to exist for reasons of creative, non-defamatory but potentially still critical free speech. But it is the censorship, not the anonymity itself, that is the ultimate reason we protect anonymity and that some take offense with cyberSLAPPing. If that is the case, we should be more choosing for which circumstances should have an intrinsically legal obligation to protect anonymity.