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Internet Anonymity Laws - bad, bad idea

© April 2008 Anthony Lawrence

If you are a regular reader here, you may know that I live in a Massachusetts town that could be hosting an Indian Casino someday. As I'm sure you can imagine, feelings run high on this subject: most townspeople either want the casino or don't care either way, but there is a loud minority who sees it as dangerous and destructive (I'm on the "pro-casino" side, if it matters to you).

Because of the high running emotions, there have been strident letters to local newspapers and many, many blog and message board postings on both sides of the issue. Some of these postings from the "anti's" have crossed the line and might be considered libelous - some have even been interpreted as threats. It's been pretty nasty..

Because of this, some folks on the "pro" side have taken up the issue of Internet anonymity (the postings mentioned have been anonymous). They want to form a group to push for legislation to prevent anonymity on the Internet.

I understand their frustration. Anonymous attacks on a person's reputation and business can be very disturbing. Nonetheless, legislation would be a very bad idea.

Aside from the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently protected anonymity as necessary in a free society, the technological challenges would make this impossible to enforce. Even weak efforts at cloaking that could be penetrated would require considerable effort, and that would mean that law enforcement would be unlikely to devote resources to it except in extreme cases. So in addition to being philosophically opposed, I think these laws would be impractical.

Free speech CAN be unpleasant.. that's really the point of it, isn't it? We don't need free speech to tell George Bush he's doing a wonderful job - we need it to do exactly the opposite.

If people had to prove their identity before posting anything, what would corporate or government whistle-blowers do? They'd have to keep their mouths shut - that's why we don't want this sort of law.

As for supposed damage to reputations, I think it's overblown. We all know the phrase "Consider the source" - anonymous sources are always heavily discounted. But even if some fraction of readers do believe the libel, I still think that protecting free speech is more important than any damage caused.

By the way, all ISP's will fight this tooth and nail also, although for more selfish reasons. Their influence on legislators would be tremendous. The ACLU will oppose, and I expect most Republican conservatives will also. You'd have an uphill battle all the way (and almost certainly get struck down by the Supreme Court if you got that far).

So, I'm against this on technical, philosophical and practical grounds. I won't support any efforts toward legislation and in fact will actively oppose such.

A good write-up on the history of law in this are is at PRESERVING ANONYMITY ON THE INTERNET. I really recommend reading that if you are still thinking such laws are justified.

Got something to add? Send me email.

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Sat Apr 26 20:29:10 2008: 4136   JonR

I'm in total agreement with you on this, though I'm generally opposed to casinos (and changed banks to one -- also one of the US' largest -- whose management will not do business with casinos).

Anonymity is vital in a free society, and opposed actively in less free ones. Totalitarian regimes do not want citizens to be able to publish anti-government material anonymously. I certainly don't believe we've reached that undesirable point in the US yet, but there are those who would welcome the opportunity to reveal the identity of anybody daring even to criticize, let alone oppose, government -- or religious, or educational, or philosophical -- positions, policies, and activities.

You point out well that the whole point of free speech is to be able to say unpleasant things. I for one would not want to live in a Disneyland world where everything is bland and polite and cheerful. That does not reflect the way the real world operates. When I read something that incenses me, I keep in mind that I'm glad the person voicing the reprehensible opinion is free to do so.

Voltaire said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it." He did not say, "...your right to say it, as long as it's not really offensive."

I will join you in actively opposing any legislation whose goal is to curb or deny anonymity -- on the Web or anywhere else.

Sun Apr 27 03:36:14 2008: 4137   drag


The truth of the matter is that the only sort of speech that needs protection is stuff that is truly offensive.

I am of the opinion that there is a fundamental nature to the Internet. People often have this idea that software is this infinate world were you can do anything you want if you just throw money and programmers at it. The biggest example of this folly that I can think of is Digital Rights Management.

I mean the fundamental concept, the technical reality is that DRM is doomed to failure from the offset.

There are limits we deal with every day. Proccessing power, the line noise, the mathematical concepts that are the basis of programming languages, the distributed nature, the constant failures of hardware, software, and people as well as the design of the thing that allows it to continuously operate even though its almost always in a semi-crippled state.

Trying to pass laws and regulations what can and cannot be done on it what sort of monitoring technology is required, and all of that sort of thing is just going to f*k it up. It's going to set bad designs into stone and the laws will limit the workarounds possible. Fundamentally limiting progress. All of this for some government fantasy that will never materialize and will end up being almost certainly abused.

Sun Apr 27 03:38:11 2008: 4138   drag

Oops. The 'it' in the last two paragraphs I am referring to is 'the internet' not 'drm'. Just wanted to avoid any confusion.

Sun Apr 27 10:24:22 2008: 4139   TonyLawrence


The people here who want this have had reputations damaged, threats.. they are understandably upset. But it's that the "cure is worse than the disease".

"Safety" (in this case the safety from libel and slander from anonymous sources) always carries with it loss of freedom. Sometimes we have to do that (the "You can't cry 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre" example), but here we would lose too much.

Mon Apr 28 15:54:11 2008: 4148   rbailin

But I assume that like newspapers, individual websites, message boards and the like can demand identities in order to submit a post, with the option to grant anonymity to the poster ("Name withheld by request")?

I would also prefer that like newspapers, websites, etc., step up to the plate and moderate their postings for civil discourse, to keep flaming to a minimum and to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio.

But all this should and must be optional, not government mandated.


Mon Apr 28 17:26:08 2008: 4149   TonyLawrence

Yes, of course they can. But as you say, the government needs to stay out of that.


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