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

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.

TOPICS: Security

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.


Topic: Security

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  • Except that it won't.

    "New York wants to outlaw anonymous comments to prevent cyberbullying and other online abuse."

    Except that "real names" won't prevent cyberbullying and other online abuse, as Google+ learned the hard way.

    "It???s arguably a lot easier to bully ??? a highly subjective term ??? someone online than it is in person."

    And a lot more subjective when you're talking about online. Bullying in real life often involves actual physical abuse, which is far easier to define.

    "and the anonymity factor pulls many away from conforming to established social norms."

    I want proof of this. I really do. Supporters of "real names" have been pushing this pseudo-psychological stuff for a long time - you say you want people to be held accountable for what they say? How about you start with yourself, hmm? Give me the evidence of these psychological claims.
  • This is as scatterbrained in its proposed reach

    as your feeble, halfhearted attempt to present it without barreling over. It's more than apparent YOU can't tell if this is typical fuzzy-legal bar maneuvering, or something more. When all else fails, vacillate.

    Here's a tip. Whenever pussyfoot NY leads the way in anything new or novel, run the other way as fast as your feet can fly. You can thank me later for the sage advice when you find safe refuge at a secure enough distance. Like back in London. *Oh wait*
  • I'm here to protect you!

    I miss the good old days when state legislators did useful things, like passing a law to define 'pi' as 3.0.
    Robert Hahn
  • Why should the web be any different?

    The roots of anonymous public commentary were in the writings of our founding fathers, but that was quickly lost as the federal and state governments looked to crush the very tactics that made the American Revolution possible. Anonymous speech all but disappeared from the landscape except for a few fringe groups that put out the effort needed to print and distribute their own materials, often at grave personal risk from official abuse or mob action.

    The internet made anonymous speech practical again for the masses, but of course it really isn't anonymous. There are records that can be traced by the authorities who are now well-versed in the process of tracking people down. Corporations with lawyers and money to burn can also find out just about anything they want.

    So this bill is something of a red herring, intent more on restraint of speech and public shaming than it is with enforcing libel and slander laws.
    terry flores
  • Security

    Some forums are discussing issues relating to their government or their leaders. In some countries, like in Africa or China, forum posters discussing sensitive issues against their leader or against their leaders decisions, can be easily traced and killed.

    In a democratic country, freedom of speech is a basic right.

    Bullying in a forum is acceptable, the bully just discredits himself if he bullies someone. And it doesn't take an intelligent reader to conclude which poster is a bully.

    I hope bullying is really the issue for this anonymity ban issue, and not the tracking of citizens who are criticizing their leaders.
    • Say what?

      Bullying ANYWHERE including cyberspace is an unacceptable form of behaviour. Bullying causes actual harm - including several teenage deaths every year.

      Banning anonymity unfortunately is not the solution. People pretty much bully regardless. What is really required is some enforcement. If you bully in person, it is called assault (and possibly slander or libel), and is a criminal offense. It should be treated with equal seriousness on the internet.
  • you can't eat doughnuts fried in Lard in NYC, or smoke outside legally

    so go figgure. It's just a way to fine you for something else. If a forum wants the participants to reveal themselves, then so be it, and it becomes a more credible forum. Slander is still slander, libel is still libel, but these things must be PROVEN IN COURT before someone is forced to reveal their identity. Of course mayor bloomburg would like to be able to know the names of his detractors, so he can publicly humiliate them on his TV network. Look at Anthony Weiner.

    The whole idea that the internet is somehow outside of the normal workings of the law is still a mystery to me. Newspapers and books are no different, yet have a different set of standards. How can that be?? and who has decided that we cannot expect privacy, anonimity and all the protections that come with the constitution (at least here in America).
    sparkle farkle
    • What anonymity provisions are there in the US constitution?

      I'm not in favour of government protrusion into people lives, and I'm not here, however I'm not sure using the Courts and constitutional arguments of anonymity are on target.

      Over the years we've seen many posters in these talkbacks using the anonymity afforded to say the most absurd things. Flagging was big for them as well. Few of these would have happened if using their real names (or at least identification of the culprits).
      Richard Flude
      • As far as I know, there are no...

        ...provisions for anonymity in the Constitution. It guarantees a right to free speech, but does not guarantee that it be anonymous.

        I feel that anonymous statements should be a right though. Say, it's 40 years ago, and someone wanted to pen a complaint to the government and didn't want to be singled out for stating his feelings. If they wanted to remain anonymous, all they had to do was type a letter and send it to the editor of the local newspaper. That was "the real world" back then. The only layer of filtering was the editor of the newspaper (which admittedly was subjective). Their much older other way was to post a bill on the local bulletin board.

        Now, very few people read newspapers, and online content has taken over. Because of that change, do people deserve to have taken away from them their ability to speak out without being singled out by an oppressive political party or power mad individual? I don't think so.

        There are better ways to do what New York is doing, but instead they're taking the lazy man's way out by carte blanche denying it. As was alluded to in the article, all the the government has to do is to obtain a warrant, get Facebook's logs on a bully, obtain IP logs from an ISP and come down hard like a ton of bricks on the offender. Because it's difficult (And rightfully so for the privacy reasons above), they don't like to do this, so they'd rather take EVERYONE'S rights away for a few infractors instead.

        So typical of modern U.S. government...
      • The U.S. Constitution protects the individual citizen from ...

        ... unreasonable (warrantless) search and seizure. Traditionally, SCOTUS has interpreted that as a guarantee of privacy but I am not sure that sticks when you "grant access" of your own free will. Your using the Internet is an awful lot like "granting access".

        The Patriot Act takes this approach and goes so far as to circumvent these protections but, up to now, now one has challenged the Patriot Act before the Supreme Court. It make take years for that law to be struck down.
        M Wagner
    • Public health issues aside (you can't shoot heroin either) ...

      In the real world, you are never truly anonymous. People see you on the street - that establishes the jurisdiction - and you leave behind physical evidence, fingerprints, DNA, eye witnesses. On the internet, none of this information is readily available. The criminal can dupe the casual user into giving out all sorts of information which can turn the user into a victim.
      M Wagner
  • Banning anonymity only treats the symptom, not the problem

    I don't have any insight on how to solve the problem, but any idiot knows that treating the symptom of a problem is not how you solve a problem.

    This is just sad.
  • State not Federal matter

    The Bill of Rights in the US Constitution only applies to federal authorities (despite what they are currently teaching in the mass media) however New York's consitution also has a right to free (and anonymous since anonymity protects freedom.

    I can write a manifesto and self publish it anonymously, I should be able to post to a website anonymously.
    • Not entirely true!

      Article XIV, Section 1.:
      All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

      Seems states have to stay in line with federal law or run the risk of violating the constitution, and be punished by the federal government. So, a federal matter too!!!!
      • Article 14 was thrown out....

        by our current administration allowing the military to indefinitely detain citizens without any of the due processes clauses being enacted, such as the notification of charges, the right to legal counsel, the fair and speedy trial, jury of one's peers or the right to cross examine.

        By the way, this isn't a political statement, it actually has happened. I'm part of a nonpartisan push to repeal this bill, which was found unconstitutional by a federal judge, but passed by the House anyway.

        Check out the Huffington Posts' latest article about it.
      • Ummm...

        The "current Administration" is only continuing the policies of the previous Administration in those regards.
    • Anything that affects...

      ...the Internet is a matter of Interstate Commerce, thus subject to Federal oversight.

      Also, the Communications Act may well come into play.
    • Not necessarily. No state constitution or law may circumvent ...

      ... the protections provided for in the Bill of Rights. That said, the Supreme Court does not have original jurisdiction on such matters so state matters have to be addressed in state supreme courts before being referred to federal courts, before they reach SCOTUS. Challenges to Federal law have to start in Federal District court, then the Circuit Court of Appeals, before reaching SCOTUS.
      M Wagner
  • I agree.... to a point....

    The reason behind it is sound, however, I also believe that people should be able to have 'reasonable expectations of privacy' online, as guaranteed by the 4th Amendment in Katz vs. the United States (1967).

    The majority of 'net users either do so from the privacy of their own homes and PCs or from their own phones they have purchased, pay additional tariffs and surcharges for the "privilege" of using the Internet.

    If the US Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Katz should have an expectation of reasonable privacy when closing the door of a PUBLIC phone booth, why should Americans at large not expect the same from their ISPs?

    It should be up to the companies in question to tighten their security policies and effectiveness at dealing with cyberbullying, piracy, or any other type of crime, including storing ISPs of users (which needs to be stated in a TOS).

    Ever try to report someone to FaceBook for harassment? You can't even speak to a person, write out or submit any additional documentation, or anything else. I doubt humans even review it, given that they have automated text finders.
  • ...

    "Anonymity should be reserved for those deemed worthy of it" - deemed worthy by who? Using what criteria? That strikes me as an incredibly dangerous statement.

    Also, with the exception of those whose livelihoods depend upon accessing a particular site, cyberbullying (unlike bullying in the physical world) is avoidable. School and work are necessities; Facebook and Twitter--yes, even ZDNet--are not! If someone feels compelled to keep visiting and interacting on a particular site despite the fact that the atmosphere there is driving them to suicide, they've got major problems quite apart from being bullied.