Make the Internet Less Anonymous?

Here is an excerpt from an Opinionator guest editorial from the NYT (some paragraphs have been deleted because of length considerations). “…I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Oft attributed to Voltaire, it never the less something I have heard since ever I can remember.  I, too, am as upset by troglodytes and trolls writing anonymous flames as I was by the neighbor boy who delighted in leaving urine in the elevator when I was a child.

Anonymity is often tiresome but without anonymity a great number of voices would be silenced because (rightly or wrongly) they fear exposure to ridicule or worse.  It would have a chilling effect on speech.  I recently had the opportunity to find a population of sites devoted to racial purity from why some Italians are blond and some dark haired.

Distasteful and empty except for those who relish the genre.  I am occasionally plagued by trolls who make provocative posts just to provoke anger and confusion.  I suspect Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, and Lenny Bruce and your angry heckler might fit the definition of Troll.

Fish writes: “There are at least two problems with this reasoning. First, it is not true that a text’s meaning is the same whether or not its source is known. Suppose I receive an anonymous note asserting that I have been betrayed by a friend. I will not know what to make of it — is it a cruel joke, a slander, a warning, a test?  But if I manage to identify the note’s author — it’s a friend or an enemy or a known gossip — I will be able to reason about its meaning because I will know what kind of person composed it and what motives that person might have had.”

I would answer that a whistleblower, a supporter of a minority opinion, or a fool would be exposed equally and silenced.  In a different country or different political circumstances one might be imprisoned if not  literally silenced.

I ask, which is the greater risk.  I vote for anonymity in the internet.

I have previously blogged my thoughts on tracking software and data mining in an earlier post On-line Trackers and Privacy… –  carlos

Anonymity and the Dark Side of the Internet

By STANLEY FISH, Read more at Opinionator, NY Times…

In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995) the Supreme Court overturned a statute requiring any person who prints a notice or flyer promoting a candidate or an issue to identify the communication’s author by name. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, grounded his opinion in an account of meaning he takes from an earlier case (First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti): “The inherent worth of . . . speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual.” Or, in other words, a writing or utterance says what it says independently of who happens to say it; the information conveyed does not vary with the identification of the speaker.

There are at least two problems with this reasoning. First, it is not true that a text’s meaning is the same whether or not its source is known. Suppose I receive an anonymous note asserting that I have been betrayed by a friend. I will not know what to make of it — is it a cruel joke, a slander, a warning, a test? But if I manage to identify the note’s author — it’s a friend or an enemy or a known gossip — I will be able to reason about its meaning because I will know what kind of person composed it and what motives that person might have had.

In the same way, if I am the recipient of a campaign message supporting a candidate or a policy, my assessment of what I am reading or hearing will depend on my knowledge of the sender. Is he, she or it an industry representative, a lobbyist, the A.C.L.U., the Club for Growth? The identity of the speaker is part of the information and is therefore part — a large part — of the meaning. (“Consider the source” is not only commonplace advice; it is a theory of interpretation.)

The practice of withholding the identity of the speaker is strategic, and one purpose of the strategy (this is the second problem with anonymity) is to avoid responsibility and accountability for what one is saying. Anonymity, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago observes, allows Internet bloggers “to create for themselves a shame-free zone in which they can inflict shame on others.” The power of the bloggers, she continues, “depends on their ability to insulate their Internet selves from responsibility in the real world, while ensuring real-world consequences” for those they injure.

An unconstrained marketplace of ideas is often said to facilitate informed decision-making by providing all the information, even erroneous information, that is out there. But how, asks Brian Leiter in a powerful essay, is the process of deliberation helped by the anonymous poster who reports falsely “that Jane Doe has herpes” and announces “that he would like to sodomize her?” The Internet and the real world, Leiter concludes, “would both be better places” if Internet providers were held accountable for the scurrilous and harmful material they disseminate.

How might that be managed? The answer given by the authors in this volume involves the repeal or modification of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that no provider of an Internet service shall be treated as the publisher of information provided by another. That is, the provider is not liable for what others have said, and courts have interpreted that section as immunizing providers even when they “have knowledge that [a statement] is defamatory or invasive of privacy.”

Saul Levmore (Nussbaum’s co-editor) suggests that immunity might be conditioned on the willingness of a provider either to take down a message after notice of its falsity or defamatory character has been given, or “to enforce non-anonymity” and thus open the way for an injured party to seek redress. The law, writes Anupam Chander, “should allow the individual to find information to lead her to the person who committed the privacy invasion.” As it is now, with an expansive reading of Section 230, “the law no longer puts any obstacles in the way of the Sociopath” who, traveling on the Internet, can go anywhere and spray venom that lasts forever. (Leiter)

But, as Geoffrey Stone reminds us in his essay, putting obstacles in the way of anyone’s speech (even the speech of sociopaths or perverts or subversives ) has been frowned on by the Supreme Court ever since New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which holds that, at least as regards public officials, debate should be uninhibited and wide open even if it is “vehement” and “caustic” and contains both “factual error” and “defamatory content.” In subsequent decisions, the category of “public officials” was widened first to include “public persons” and then to include persons who wander into the ambit of a public event, in short, almost everyone.

The idea (which goes back at least as far as Milton’s Areopagitica) is that false and defamatory speech openly published will provoke counter speech and lead to correction; the truth will ultimately prevail. (Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”) But however likely that happy outcome may be in the world of books and newspapers (and I have always thought it extremely unlikely), the special conditions and powers of the Internet conspire against it and the more likely outcome is the one prophesied by Alexander Pope in the final lines of “The Dunciad”: “Light dies before thy uncreating word . . . / And universal darkness buries all.”

Perhaps the most amazing statement is made by Daniel J. Solove when he declares that “the law is hampered because it overprotects free speech.” The conventional first-amendment wisdom is that free speech cannot be overprotected, but that wisdom is put on trial by these thinkers. Some years ago, I wrote a book titled “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing, Too.” This book could be titled “There is Such a Thing as the Free Unregulated Internet and It’s a Bad Thing, Too.”

 

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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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