No one ever said that you had to attach your identity to your online postings. In fact, many websites function based on the assumption that users have a right to speak anonymously. For example, Reddit, Twitter, and WordPress are often used by anonymous speakers based on this very assumption. Many of these topics benefit from—or in many cases, require—the ability for speakers to maintain their anonymity. Sexual and domestic abuse survivors, corporate whistleblowers, and controversial political activists all use platforms such as Reddit, Twitter, and WordPress precisely to maintain their anonymity. On Reddit, in particular, countless people communicate and seek support anonymously about sensitive topics that they feel unable to discuss under their real names on subreddits such as r/relationships, r/divorce, r/confessions, r/TwoXChromosomes, and r/anxiety, to name just a few. Many of these subreddits have hundreds of thousands, or millions, of readers.

Anonymous Internet speech, however, presents unique problems to courts. Though anonymous speakers have a First Amendment right to anonymous speech on the Internet, that right is subject to limitation in the same way as traditional speech. Anonymous users can, and often do, attempt to escape liability for actions like defamation and various forms of infringement by hiding behind false personas.

It is difficult to understate the great lengths that courts and counsel must go to in order to unmask anonymous individuals that abuse their First Amendment rights (after deciding whether they can unmask them at all). Consider the following factors that can complicate attempts to unmask an individual: one can sign up for a myriad of websites, provide an email, chose a pseudonym, and become a posting member in less than a minute. One need not even give a legitimate email connected to their actual identity. Instead, anyone can easily attach a fake email to a fake account. For example, you could create a fake Gmail account, use that account to create an anonymous Twitter, and begin tweeting within five minutes of reading this blog.

But people can go further still, masking their IP address with the use of a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”). One of the most prominent VPNs is The Onion Router (“TOR”). By utilizing TOR, users can bounce their IP address across several different servers, burying the connection between their activities and the computer they used beneath layer upon layer of encryption and misdirection. Though TOR and its advocates assert that its primary purpose is to ensure privacy (if not the ability to circumvent highly repressive regimes), one can easily imagine how such a tool can be abused. One example is the rise and fall of the first Silk Road website on TOR, where individuals shrouded behind several layers of anonymity purchased illicit drugs, fake IDs, and other commodities using cryptocurrency.

There are new tools, however, that may allow courts and counsel to unmask defendants hiding behind all of these masks. For example, Professor Sambuddho Chakravarty claims that he has developed a way to piece TOR’s layers back together. Boasting an 81.4% success rate in 2014, Dr. Chakravarty’s tool may well be the first of many that potential plaintiffs can make use of to unmask defamers and infringers hiding in the Web’s darker corners. But this tool could just as easily be used by annoyed parties and potential wrongdoers to slap (or rather, SLAPP) the very users that need online anonymity the most. The question then becomes whether these tools work more harm than good. Regardless, the takeaway seems to be that we may not be nearly as anonymous as we think we are.

Nathaniel A. Plemons

Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *