May 23, 2012

The pros and cons of unmasking commenters

I see that the New York State Legislature, or at least a few members, are proposing a ban on anonymous comments on blogs, newspaper comments, and similar things. As this site runs out of my house with a server in downtown Ithaca, I'd definitely have to change my policies here.

The bill itself is fairly readable, if you want to take a look.

Overall, I'm not thrilled about the legislation. I have very mixed feelings about anonymity on the Internet:

  • On the downside, anonymity gives jerks of every kind the opportunity to hassle other people without consequences.

  • In a world where the consequences for taking a stand can be drastic, and where organizations of every kind indulge in crazed efforts to suppress information that doesn't mesh with their PR story, there absolutely needs to be an outlet for anonymous speech.

  • There's also a huge group of people in the middle who have something useful to say but aren't thrilled about handing over their name and address to everyone who might disagree.

The bill itself feels to me like it comes from a group of powerful people who want to shut down speech that might be dangerous to them. Yes, there could be a positive impact on reducing the number of cyber-bullies of all kinds, but the cost to useful political conversation seems far too great. I won't be surprised if this passes, given a climate in Albany that includes for example the Governor's office assembling dossiers on a reporter they considered too critical. It seems like an excellent tool for keeping information under the control of a few powerbrokers with an interest in maintaining New York's gross dysfunction.

via Slashdot.

Posted by simon at May 23, 2012 11:27 AM in , ,
Note on photos


Adam Engst said:

The Wired article is carefully crafted to make the proposed bill look as bad as possible. The language clearly says that it would require webmasters to remove anonymous comments _upon request_, which is a very different thing than banning anonymous commenting entirely. The article's final criticism that those making the request don't have any identification requirement is valid, though. If you want transparency, make it complete, and make sure those trying to shut down speech are clearly identified.

It's also entirely unclear what the jurisdiction is. Your location is entirely in Ithaca, but while our business is in Ithaca/Dryden, our (virtual) server is not. Does it apply? Who knows.

I'm equally as troubled by the issue of anonymity on the Internet. There are obvious and high profile reasons why it's necessary (c.f. Arab Spring and government whistleblowers) but in the vast majority of situations online, it's merely a shield that the mean-spirited hide behind. If you have something to say, _you_ should say it, not some anonymous online identity. If you can't stand behind what you have to say, you shouldn't say it.

cheers... -Adam