Why a real name policy for online comments works best (except when it doesn’t)

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/.

Traditional media, who are struggling to adjust to the online world, have adopted various approaches.  Some newspapers allow anonymous comments, but editors moderate all posts by reserving the right to delete comments that violate the papers posted community guidelines, such as no racist, sexist or personal attacks.  KSL TV follows this approach in its Comments Policy.  This is labor intensive, however, and with the economic challenges traditional media, this approach has lost favor of late. The Salt Lake Tribune allows opaque user names, but you are required to have a real email address in order to open an account which is a prerequisite to posting comments.  Comments are not moderated by Tribune editors, but are subject to being deleted if they violate the Tribune’s terms of use.  Other newspapers permit readers to self police the comments by allowing readers to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on each comment.  If a particular comment receives a certain number of down votes it is removed.  With Facebook’s ubiquity and the ability to log onto a site via Facebook, many newspapers allow a commenter to check in with Facebook and have reported that such a policy has improved the quality of comments.

 Anonymity, But With Potential Accountability

 While it certainly is well within the rights of any website to dictate its own terms of use, I place my thumb on the free speech side of the scale when it comes to anonymous speech.  We unavoidably stifle and restrict free expression when we rule out anonymous statements.  That does not mean that anonymous posters should be given free reign to libel and attack others with impunity; it just means that they have the right to speak anonymously and they must be willing to accept the consequences in the event their identity is discovered.  In today’s increasingly transparent world, it is becoming very difficult to be truly anonymous in the face of a persistent effort to learn someone’s identity.  Moreover, there are existing legal processes that allow a judicially compelled disclosure of identity when certain legal threshold showings are made.  In my view, this regime (allowing initial anonymity with judicially compelled disclosure under certain circumstances) strikes a reasonable balance between the competing interests.

17 thoughts on “Why a real name policy for online comments works best (except when it doesn’t)

  1. I think that if you go online and decide that you are going to comment on something, that you shouldn’t be able to do anonymously. Yes, you should be able to have a username/nickname that immediately shows when someone looks who the comment is from but on the other hand, whoever looks at your comment should be able to easily figure out who you are despite what filters some websites have.

  2. The ability to anonymously write or comment on the internet is something that I believe should be valued and protected. The benefit of accountability is not worth the loss of transparency and honesty that can be provided by anonymity. Political whistle-blowers are often put in great danger and threatened with the disclosure of unpopular information. While some (such as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden) are known all over the world, they must completely change how they live to survive and remain “free”.

    Those who bemoan internet trolls are missing the point. This is the kind of noise which you learn to contend with on the internet. Different forms of moderation are dangerous because it is too easy for bias to be applied. Even a peer-based system is subject to “downvotes” of an unpopular, yet valid opinion.

    The silk screen of anonymity may not be the most secure method of hiding your identity, especially in today’s society. However, if there is a good chance (and there is) that it could expose a valid and original idea, it is something worth preserving.

  3. I think that people should be allowed to keep their anonymity on the internet because it gives the ability for people to speak their mind. Just like voting, less voices would be heard if anonymity was taken away from the people. Granted, this does allow more bad behavior, but I mostly believe it is the responsibility of the websites owners to deal with trolls, not the governments.

  4. Having the ability to chose to be anonymous online is both good and bad. It’s great that people can have the freedom to express their opinions freely without consequence or backlash but, like all good things, there are the people that ruin it. They use it to their advantage to cyber bully without consequence. Unfortunately those people have ruined the great thing about being anonymous. So, I do not think we should have that right. It creates too many problems.

  5. I believe that people should be able to remain anonymous because everyone should be able to give their opinion without being personally attacked. There are some consequences that come along with anonymity but this is to be expected. Although, I also agree that it should be the website owners responsibility to monitor comments to ensure that there is no use of racism, sexism, or anything that is considered offensive. This may be labor intensive but I believe that it can help fix many of the problems discussed above.

  6. Super Secret Spy Guy

    I feel that for the most part, anonymity is a burden on the internet. Free speech however, including the open discussion of ideas is a cornerstone upon with our very way of life is based. Because of this, I feel that for most things, like youtube, Facebook, reddit, etc., should all require transparency in regards to the name of the individual. This would cut down on much of the hostile and harmful conduct that occurs in these places. On the other hand, I feel that there should be places where ideas can be discussed and debated openly an anonymously to advance the political and social discourse in our society.

  7. I think that everyone should be able to stay anonymous but, they should have to give there real name when signing up. That way if they do something that violates terms service they can be banned or muted for a period of time. I do believe that when people are anonymous that they speak more freely about the subject they are talking about.

  8. I don’t believe that people should be about to comment or to be anonymous online. I think that the reason they want to be anonymous is because they are saying something that they don’t want to be know to say. They want to hide that they are the ones saying what they say or posting what they post. They want to hide their identity for reasons that aren’t right. For example a person could be harassing people online anonymously so that they won’t be found out who they really are. This is why I believe that everyone should be who they are online.

  9. I think that this is definitely a big issue today because both sides of the argument have validity. However, I personally feel that people sometimes post horrible things anonymously. It is a defense for them to say whatever they want without worrying about getting caught (although there are definitely ways to track them). Yet, if used by more than just trolls on the Internet, anonymity could increase creativity and help generate new ideas on how to better society. People would not have to be afraid of someone that dislikes them or disagrees with them making it hard for them to have their ideas heard. However, anonymity could cause problems with who really deserves credit. It is a very complex issue and I think it should just be left how it is.

  10. I agree with what a few people have said, that there is both good and bad to being able to be anonymous on the internet. Everyone is technically anonymous to a certain degree, as how can one be sure who is actually sitting being the computer? Just because we are required to use usernames doesn’t mean that people are being honest about who they are. Ideally we would be able to use real usernames/anonymity as we please, with no one taking advantage of either option. But as Moevanu said, I think things should be left how they are.

  11. I definitely see the point for both sides but I tend to agree more that anonymity should not be on the internet. People should be able to practice the freedom of speech without a false face. We should be able to feel comfortable talking about our beliefs, opinions, and ideas without hiding. If you are not comfortable with having the comment connected to your name then maybe it shouldn’t be said in the first place.

  12. While I can see why online anonymity can pose risk through trolls, child predators, drug dealers and other criminals these reasons are outweighed by the necessity for someone to be able to express themselves without identifying who they are. The point made in the article about the importance online anonymity played in The Arab Spring is what I see as the strongest argument in favor of online anonymity. What makes this argument for me is that people are less willing to say what is on their minds if they perceive that they are being observed or potentially judged by their peers.

  13. Both sides of this argument have very valid points. I have to go with the side that people should be able to remain anonymous if they choose to be. I think that people shouldn’t be left completely able to post whatever they want and get away with posting something they shouldn’t have, though. There should be a way that the person has to give their real information, but keep it private on the website that they are posting on so that they can be held accountable if they say something offensive. I think that people should be able to remain anonymous if they want to be because some people are afraid of being judged on their opinions, even if it isn’t necessarily offensive to other people. Even though it might be expensive, I think that websites should be monitored by someone to watch out for trolls because I think it will keep people accountable and will get rid of some of the negative posts and comments.

  14. This topic is an interesting one, because as it states in the beginning go the article “The debate about anonymity on the internet has raged since the advent of the internet.” But anonymity itself has existed since the beginning of this country. Benjamin Franklin is an example of this,being denied to write in the paper at the age of 15 he used a “username” known as Mrs. Silence Dogood a middle-aged woman.Whose letters to the press became a sensation throughout town. Benjamin Franklin was an advocate of freedom of speech, using his anonymous name he often quoted Cato’s Letters “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech.” And let’s not forget the many other incredible people who had to undergo a different name, simply because they wanted to, because to them it was their alter ego, their other persona, an escape from their world and into another reality. Emily Brontee (Ellis Bell), J.K. Rowling (Newt Scamander), Alice Bradley Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.), C.S. Lewis (N.W. Clerk), Helen Goff (P.L. Travers) and so many more. All whom wrote/directed/published with a pseudonym. Even today many celebrities undergo a stage name, Katy Perry, Beyonce, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, Tom Cruise I mean are you really going to go up to someone who makes thirteen times more money than you and demand they do everything with their precise name? It’s their business, not yours, mine or anyone else. We ourselves even go by nicknames…anonymity is not a fake identity, it is an identity it just depends how we to accept that, because what they post is their freedom of speech. So yes I agree that people can remain anonymous, because our anonymity just might be their identity.

  15. For those arguing to eliminate anonymity in some way or fashion probably don’t realize how hard it is to actually eliminate it. First of all, the reason anonymity is such a big part of the internet is because it’s easy to stay unknown. You would have to put in a considerable amount of effort to reveal just one true identity of a single person. For those websites that require “real” information, it’s easy to say I’m Billy Bob Joe and my email is bigboysarefun@gmail.com, granted that I create the email address first. Trying to establish true identity on the internet would be a futile effort, and an unnecessary one at that. Facebook does require your real information, but I strongly believe it’s been a detriment to society. Anything you post on Facebook today can be held against you later in life. Maybe that’s the point, but imagine you’re an average user with nothing to fear on your account. Another user with “real” information can tag you in a photo that you don’t want anyone to see. Now everyone can see that photo, and you’re powerless to do anything about it. Anonymity is a preventive measure

  16. Both sides of the argument have very strong points and I agree with each side in different ways. On one hand, anonymity is a great privilege to have on the internet (even if its not truly anonymous.) You can post comments on websites, write anonymous blog posts, and anonymously bicker with another “anonymous” person online. These things may seem silly, but I think that’s one reason why people love the internet so much. People can chat, comment, and post without feeling any pressure because the people reading them don’t truly know who you are. Its like a secret identity in a virtual world and people love that. Anonymity also helps people online in situations such as spousal abuse or suicide. They can anonymously ask for help without feeling like they’re in any danger by giving away their identity. There are also problems with anonymity, like you said. Hateful and rude comments, false commenting on other businesses websites, etc. Both sides of the argument are very strong and ultimately I believe the choice of anonymity is the individual’s.

  17. I believe that on the websites that have millions of users like Youtube, Facebook, twitter, etc. that you should use your real name since most of these websites are using that type of trending for communicating. When it comes to things like online video games, forums, and websites, you shouldn’t have to use a real name. In my opinion though, if i could make the decision for everybody, people should always have to use a name now. Online technology has increased tremendously in the past years and it would make sense to use your name. We are becoming a “community” online and it would only encourage constructive communications between people and less bad situations would happen in the cyber world.

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