Anonymity and the Internet

A case winding its way through a court in Pennsylvania attempts to pierce the veil of anonymity that protects web forum participants' ability to say whatever they want about public figures. Though I don't agree with the conclusions of the judge, I am not fan of anonymity of the Internet, as it tends to turn civil discourse into a "flame war."

Pennsylvania is more than a swing state in the upcoming presidential election. It's also the site of what may turn out to be a test of an Internet user's right to remain anonymous while posting to Internet forums. The Scranton City Council President Judy Gatelli (a city name that popped up numerous times in this election season, as it was the site of Hillary Clinton's supposed childhood experience with rifles, and is also Joe Biden's home town...or rather, one of them) is suing a web site administrator and a number of anonymous posters for "defamation, civil conspiracy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and abuse of process." Though the initial case was thrown out, a subsequent filing led the judge to conclude that the web site in question must disclose the identities of six forum participants (from an original group of about 100).

The ruling cited case precedent that would be exciting reading material if you are a lawyer. However, Judge O'Brien summarized his reasoning thusly:

"The First Amendment protects opinion criticism of public officials. The above quoted statements attributing serious sexual misconduct to Defendant Gatelli go beyond the bounds of those protections afforded by the First Amendment."

Suffice to say, I'm underwhelmed by the evidence of verbal abuse, though perhaps that is just because I have a bit of experience with the problem. In the 10 years or so I've been engaging in debates on ZDNet, either as a writer or as a Talkback participant, I've been called all sorts of names that make the language used on the Pennsylvania-based opinion site seem downright mild. It never in a million years has occurred to me, however, that I should try to pierce the veil of anonymity in hopes of suing my antagonists (though in darker moments, I can understand the desire to give them a well deserved public flogging).

By that standard, famous actors and actresses who fill the pages of scandal magazines could be throwing lawsuits left and right against companies with REAL money. I don't think there is a day that goes buy that some famous person isn't accused of something they did not do.

Personally, I think Judy Gatelli needs to develop a thicker skin, a trait necessary for anyone who aims to rise above the fray and put themselves in the public eye. You WILL be criticized, and much of it will be extremely unfair, incorrect, and downright insulting. That's life on the Internet.

That being said, I, personally, am no fan of anonymity. I think it adds nothing to the dialogue, and quite often, can turn a quite reasonable discussion on serious issues into a curse-filled flame war. People seem to feel free to release their inner *ssh*le (excuse my use of asterisks) when they feel that nobody can identify precisely who they are.

That's why I have chosen to put my full identity front and center in the forums in which I participate. I'm a frequent participant in PalTalk debates (won't post my handle, but if you run into me, you'll know it), and am also an "iReporter" with CNN (my site is http://www.ireport.com/people/JohnCarroll). In both forums, I use my real name, post a real photo of myself, and link to both this blog and the iReport site. It's my approach to full disclosure.

Surprisingly enough, I've found that people who are discussing things with me on PalTalk are less likely to pull out all the stops when attacking me if they've glanced at my profile (which they usually do). Granted, other people are still anonymous, and that means that some will still act like complete jerks. But, for others, my full disclosure seems to put a somewhat human face on the discussion. It makes them less likely to want to throw the verbal equivalent of broken glass in my face.

Forums where users are not anonymous tends to lead to more civility. I don't think that approach should be a legal requirement, and there is plenty of scope for genuine anonymity on the Internet. I find, however, that in forums where you want an honest debate, anonymity merely tears things apart.