New York's anonymity ban: Why should the Web be any different?

Summary:New York wants to outlaw anonymous comments to prevent cyberbullying and other online abuse. This criminologist examines why this plan, despite its controversy, may not be such a bad thing.

In a day and age where the notion of being "anonymous" is a controversial topic, from a point of view putting forward the greatest good for the greatest number --- a basic principle of utilitarianism --- a curb in online anonymity may not be such a bad idea.

New York state legislators are planning to introduce an Internet Protection Act in an attempt to curb cyberbullying, slandering a local business, or making "baseless political attacks."

The bill is complex and confusing. Thankfully, CNET's Violet Blue succinctly explains it:

"...if someone doesn't like your comment the Web site will be legally bound to make you reveal your identity. The accused commenter will also be required to verify that his or her "IP address, legal name and home address are accurate'."

If the bill were to become law, website owners and forum moderators would be required to:

"...remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post."

It sounds controversial. It is controversial.

In a world where online existence and offline realities increasingly converge, I put forward this. Why should the Web be any different than the ‘real world'?

Take cyberbullying --- one of the targets in this bill. Even anti-cyberbullying advocates are increasingly critical of the draft law, claiming that the stripping of one's rights to anonymity would likely create more problems than it would solve. Some have even dubbed the Act "unconstitutional".

Cyberbullying often happens in online groups, spurred on by one proponent under the guise of anonymity. In a real world situation, one often cannot hide behind another person's identity, yet bullying still exists. It's arguably a lot easier to bully --- a highly subjective term --- someone online than it is in person.

Online forums and social sites like Reddit, or ‘open' social networks like Twitter and Google+, are large in size and breed anonymity, notwithstanding Google's ‘real-name' policy that Blue herself was embroiled in.

The larger the group, combined with widespread anonymity often results in one person attacking another and others following. The diffused responsibility means users do not feel responsible for their actions. The larger the group is, the faster the attacks escalate.

This process is known as ‘deindividuation'. Simply put, the responsibility spreads across the group of people, and the anonymity factor pulls many away from conforming to established social norms. It makes ordinary, good people capable of doing bad things.

The trouble is: knowing the name of the person or people who are attacking you doesn't always help the situation. Legally it does, but from a justice point of view, not so much.

Earlier this year, "king of the fanboys" John Gruber and Apple ‘evangelists' Shawn King and Harry C. Marks et al, were instrumental in an "online witch hunt" which led to weeks of harassment, verbal abuse and threats of violence directed at Blue by a vastly anonymous group of likeminded individuals.

While many cowered behind a veil of anonymity, at least three figures gratified and extolled Gruber by penning caustic and borderline sociopathic pieces with their names attached. Granted, they could not be accused of cowardice.

Thanks to Gruber's unprecedented access to secretive Apple, he is treated like a god to those who worship him. Gruber's response was muted, knowing his flock would wish to please him by way of spreading his verbal vitriolic seed across the Web.

This shows exactly how deindividuation forms and becomes a ‘riot'. Riots can happen online and offline, often with one person ultimately the target. In real life cases, it can be government, or the ‘rules' that keep the fabric of society sewn together.

It's mob mentality, and the reason why so many ‘normal' people engaged in the London riots last year, including those with stable jobs, a good education, and healthy socio-economic status.

It allows us to say and do what we want without repercussions. The ‘social contract' we have with one another becomes meaningless and we are no longer constrained by the values we were brought up with and taught along the path of primary socialisation.

The proposed law is not a good idea. These things cannot and should not be legislated. A government can issue a law preventing civil unrest, but without wanting to sound glib, the ‘point' of rioting is to lose control and go beyond the means of reasonable protest.

Anonymity should be reserved for those deemed worthy of it, such as for their own protection. Having said that, a converged state of online and offline worlds, even those who should retain anonymity do not always have their rights upheld.

Those who engage in online harassment or criminal behaviour should not be immune from justice.

Related:

Topics: Security

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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