There is a lot of chatter on the web. In fact that’s pretty much the point, to have as many people sharing as much information as they want.
A lot of that info is, or can be, posted without requiring a name be attached, which upsets many people, while others find it freeing and necessary.
Anonymity is baked into the structure and culture of the web.
While many websites now allow the linking of accounts across websites and identity verification through cellphones or email, the web began with nothing more than usernames for each site, handles to go by in the sea of web surfers.
The de facto anonymity allowed more open conversation, freeing participants to share ideas or say things that would be considered inappropriate for polite face-to-face conversation.
On one hand, this allowed an avenue around censorship for people scared to express themselves elsewhere. It was an absolute manifestation of our First Amendment.
On the other hand, this allowed some of these users to say some of the most controversial or potentially offensive things imaginable. Adolescent locker room humor abounds, with jokes about the Holocaust, dead babies and AIDS.
Our website strikes a middle ground, allowing users to make anonymous comments under any name they choose, though we filter out comments that use profanity or make libelous claims.
Mayor Tim Solomon has told me about his problems with our system and how people aren’t required to stand by their comments.
Council member Rick Dow, on a very small piece of middle ground with Solomon, has chastised commenters on our site, commenting with his own name, for not using their names.
We could probably enact a more stringent commenting process that required people to add and verify their names and address before they commented, but then the users who weren’t scared off by the more complicated sign-up process would not be as willing to share their ideas. This would harm the discourse that occurs everyday among our community members. And I believe that would harm the long-term health of the community, not to mention the quality of reporting in the paper.
We have gotten tips from anonymous comments that have led to stories in the paper that we might not have ever heard about.
There have been questions and angles to stories that I have pursued because I have seen that our commenters want to know and have asked us.
The Internet has only provided everyone with the kind of anonymity that led to the Washington Post’s breaking of the Watergate scandal, or that law enforcement has used for decades with undercover officers or in the witness protection program.
The New York state legislature, however, doesn’t see the benefit, or at least doesn’t think the benefits are worth the cost.
Two bills, A8688 and S06779, were introduced to the respective houses of the legislature that would ban anonymous comments in the state.
“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,” the bill states. “All web site administrators shall have a contact number or address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any section where comments are posted.”
The bills have sparked quite a debate across the country, and Internet, about what if and where the line must be drawn.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet advocacy group, says that anonymity on the Internet is no different than the anonymity of communication of the country’s founding fathers and held up in the Supreme Court since then, including this ruling from 1995 that the EFF has posted on their website:
“Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical minority views … Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. … It thus 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.”
The EFF website continues with, “the tradition of anonymous speech is older than the United States. Founders Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym ‘Publius’ and ‘the Federal Farmer’ spoke up in rebuttal. The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized rights to speak anonymously derived from the First Amendment.”
For me, anonymity on the Internet is just like any other tool, be it a car or a hammer or a steak knife.
Sure it might hurt people or, as some argued after the 2010 Wikileaks scandal, even possibly kill in extreme cases.
But it is too useful, it adds too much to our society, to be taken away or impeded.
Besides, no matter how many laws you pass, jerks will still be jerks.
(Zach White is a reporter for the Havre Daily News. He can be reached at havredailynews.com.)