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People have announcing the End of Web Anonymity for years, and perhaps with synergy of our Google accounts, we have a harder time remaining anonymous. But what would it take to truly end anonymity? How about a proposed New York law that would require web administrators to remove anonymous posts? Under the proposed law, New York based websites must provide toll-free numbers where people can complain about anonymous messages. The Web Administrator then would have 48 hours to contact the poster, and either the poster would either attach his or her name to the post or the post would be removed. The goal: combating cyberbullying. Assemblyman Jim Conte, in this op-ed, also adds “anonymous criticisms of local businesses” by “rival businesses” and “mean-spirited and baseless political attacks” as goals of this legislation.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Got it? I don’t even want to go into the self-serving nature of politicians writing legislation to prevent “baseless political attacks.” Let’s focus on the cyber-bullying. Yes, it happens, though it’s usually just regular bullying that moves online. In other words, people the victim knows, people who bully the victim in real life, also bully the victim online. Take Phoebe Prince, for example. Those accused of tormenting her did so publicly, not anonymously. In the other direction, you have the case of the woman, later acquitted of criminal charges, who made a fake MySpace page to bully a 13-year-old girl.
It’s still very easy to make fake identities online, if malfeasors want to hide. It’s also true that some people are going to brazenly attach their names to anything they say online. How would a law eliminating anonymous comments prevent cyber-bullying?
What about fake reviews? Well, Yelp is working on preventing that problem. They have an algorithm that indicates possible fake reviews, and then the site flags them for future review-seekers. And these fake reviews aren’t necessarily “anonymous” either. A business can hire firms to create fake reviews, reviews written by real people… just not real customers. Employees could write fake reviews or fake pans of rival businesses just as easily.
Let’s get down to brass tacks: the First Amendment says: Congress shall make no law abridging free speech. It applies to state legislatures too. Sure, there are a few exceptions, and maybe cyber-bullying could potentially fall under “threats.” But this law opens up the door to any anonymous speech being taken down. Even if it is only meant for derogatory or misleading comments, there’s no way that a Web Administrator for a New York-based company is going to verify the insulting nature of every complaint that crosses his or her inbox. The practical result will be either that anyone can remove anonymous posts for any reason or that no website will allow anonymous posting.
Maybe that’s what the bill drafters want. I don’t know about you, but whenever I see “Sign in to Facebook to Comment,” I keep my comments to myself. Not that I am afraid of saying something I would not want my name attached to, but it’s a hassle to sign into Facebook for a post and perhaps I don’t want my profile picture displayed perhaps permanently on Slate.com.
Mechanisms already exist for businesses to disallow anonymous posting. All the business has to do is require a social network log-in to post. Businesses that do not have perhaps other methods in place to prevent harassing speech or have otherwise chosen to not chill the active discourse on their websites. Common sense and web-experience tell us that spite-filled comment sections do not reflect well on the website, and it isn’t as if the website cannot control what occurs on their message boards.
A Darwinian system has sprung up to regulate the message boards of the web, and legislatures should interfere only at their peril.
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