The debate about anonymity on the internet has raged since the advent of the internet. The debate usually pits free speech advocates against proponents of civility and accountability with both sides approaching the issue with an all or nothing mentality. The past few years, however, have witnessed a growing trend among website owners to require persons to use their real names in order to post or comment online. Facebook, YouTube, the Huffington Post and Quora are just a few of the more notable websites that have recently joined this trend. One commentator has even advocated a mandatory internet-wide real names policy. This post identifies the main arguments for and against a real name policy and sets out the authors view as to the proper policy that should be adopted.
Promoting Civility & Insuring Accountability
Advocates for requiring a person to use their real name (or at least a recognized user name) primarily argue that such a policy raises the level of civility and quality of discourse on the internet, fosters accountability, discourages trolls and abusive posts and provides valuable contextual information for the reader to assess the post. Persons who are defamed anonymously are often unable to seek judicial relief because the wrongdoers are anonymous. And, there are numerous example of persons abusing their power and avoiding accountability for what they say by hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. The poster child for this latter concern was the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, who was a highly respected attorney and one of the longest serving U.S. Attorneys in the country, but resigned in December of 2012 when it was discovered that two of his top deputies were using the internet to anonymously attack persons their office was investigating. Another example is the Cleveland, Ohio State Judge who made anonymous comments about several high profile cases that were pending before her and then sued the paper when she was outed. Recently, the online review site Yelp was ordered by a court to reveal the identities of seven reviewers who posted negative reviews about a prominent local carpet cleaning business in Virginia. The business claims the reviews were false and were not from actual customers, but from competitors. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jan/8/court-rules-yelp-website-must-identify-seven-negat/?page=all
Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelonreflects the views of many when she argues that a free democracy is better off when everyone is forced to put their name to their words, noting that online anonymous users are poisoning civil discourse with their vile and defamatory comments, all under the excuse of “free speech.”
Protecting Whistleblowers & Fostering Free Speech
Proponents of anonymity acknowledge that abuses may sometimes occur, but argue that anonymous speech has along and hallowed tradition in our country and, indeed, enjoys constitutional protection. Absent anonymity, speech will be unnecessarily chilled, they argue. How many abused women, whistleblowers and political dissidents will come forward if they must do so using their real names? Anonymous Facebook and Twitter communications were essential during the Arab Spring protests and anonymity allows victims of domestic violence to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow. In a recent post, David Maas of the Electronic Frontier Foundation identifies 16 different groups of persons who benefit from anonymity besides trolls and political dissidents. Maas argues that anonymity is important to anyone who doesn’t want every facet of their online life tied to a Google search of their name. He focuses on the free speech promoting aspects of anonymity when he argues ” To suggest anonymity should be forbidden because of troll-noise is just as bad as suggesting a ban on protesting because the only demonstrators you have ever encountered are from the Westboro Baptist Church—the trolls of the picket world.
The website geekfeminism.org has created a Wiki which compiles a list ofpersons harmed by a real names policy. Some commentators argue that anonymity actually promotes truth and trustworthiness on the internet. http://irevolution.net/2013/10/22/trustworthiness-and-truth/.
Anonymity, But With Potential Accountability