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Writing on the Bathroom Wall in the 21st Century Anonymity on the World Wide Web is both a boon to free expression and a bonanza for boors, who abuse their freedom. Personal blogs are easy to set up, and almost all issues-oriented web sites allow readers to post comments freely under phony names. Is all the shouting and name-calling helping to destroy what rational debate we have left?


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Writing on the Bathroom Wall in the 21st Century

A young man and woman sit hunched at a keyboard in a shabby part of town. By day, they are an unassuming couple, just a pair of faces in the crowd. By night, they are crusaders fighting a bloody dictator by speaking out. Their writing puts them in jeopardy of arrest, torture, imprisonment and even death. But they are safe because they are anonymous freedom fighters on the World Wide Web.

Anonymity is good, a guardian of freedom and justice. Think of Tibet or Iran, today. It looks like a principle in the making: anonymity is necessary, especially on the Web, to protect the free exchange of ideas.

But a moment later, another young man in the same town is typing furiously on his keyboard. He's on a mission, too. He's telling the world the names of the couple, blowing their cover, outing them to the secret police. He says he's acting out of patriotism, but he realizes his real motive is jealousy over the girl, but he doesn't say so. His betrayal will not cause him any pain. His life will go on undisturbed by his friends and colleagues who know nothing because he is an anonymous rat.

Anonymity on the web is bad, a vehicle to attack enemies, for libel and slander, and for theft and blackmail as well. The situation is so lawless that many experts advocate extreme measures to curb crime and aggression on the web.

What's worse is that in either of these scenarios, the anonymous authors could be lying, making up their information for their own ends.

The anonymity on the web is substantially different from many famous cases of anonymity over hundreds of years. The Internet provides a cheap method for obtaining the appearance of total anonymity. It's cheap because computers are omnipresent, inexpensive appliances found in every home and in many public places. I say the web offers only the appearance of anonymity, because all but the most sophisticated users (government, criminal or otherwise) can be easily tracked on the web. More on that later.

In the past, publications had to be printed, requiring money and organization. Somehow, they had to be distributed at considerable risk to the people involved. The image of heros hiding stacks of revolutionary handbills and newspapers from government goons is pretty standard in the movies. Modern history is filled with revolutionaries who adopt noms de guerre. I think it is this kind of romantic picture that fuels much of the heat from people who insist that anonymity is a cornerstone of freedom of speech.

It's not.

Lenin and Trotsky used pseudonyms, but they were still well-known to the Czarist police, and lived meager lives underground or in exile. The American or European blogger in his comfortable home office after work is not a freedom fighter, or a revolutionary. He is most likely taking potshots at real or imagined enemies.

Calling George Bush and Dick Cheney "murderers" under cover of a phony name doesn't move me. It doesn't matter what we think of the former president (and I don't think much of him), but this vitriolic hype only serves to deteriorate political debate in the country. Most important, , it's not heroic. First of all, there is no secret police in this country, and the anonymous authors won't be tracked down. Second of all, they could not even be pursued for libel because those two men are public figures and pretty much fair game for anything anyone wants to say. Lastly, if the name-callers come from a big city, a university town or any number of arty places along the two coasts, they risk absolutely no personal cost — not social or economic — because nearly everyone in their world agrees to some extent.

Public figures in the United States occupy perilous ground because they are fair game for all sorts of invective, innuendo and inaccuracy. I think that the constant barrage of fury aimed at politicians causes all of us a lot of grief. It takes a certain kind of thick-skinned person to withstand such abuse, and not necessarily the kind who votes according to his conscience. And so we get politicians without conscience!

Our current president is fighting the good fight against excessive partisanship, but I fear it is a losing battle. And I'm afraid that a good part of the reason is the howling of the true believers on both sides on their thoroughly partisan web sites, where the participants vie to attract comments, fans, likes, recommends, Digg-Its, Stumbles, Tweets. It certainly seems that obnoxious hype pushes out reason and moderation. Rather than a democracy of thoughtful citizens, we have something between high school cliques and a howling mob, following the dictates of the "wisdom of the crowd".

In places where the secret police is alive and well and people have no right to freedom of speech, web anonymity couldn't possibly afford any protection. It is simply too easy to track down people on the web. A person buys a connection to the web from a commercial enterprise that opens a file on that individual if only to be able to collect payment. From that point on, the vast majority of people are traceable. The most sophisticated and paranoid computer users can use public computers and proxies to hide, but only to the extent that the authorities and businesses and corporations allow. In despotic countries, unfettered access to the web isn't even that easy.

We've seen how easy it is for the law to get access to web records here, where the authorities commonly win in criminal cases involving users' identities on the web. There's a curious case that mixes web anonymity and the freedom of the press from the Alton Telegraph in Illinois. Prosecutors investigating an horrific murder of a 5-year-boy by his mother's boyfriend in 2008 subpoenaed the paper for information that could identify five commenters on the news stories about the case. The prosecutors wanted to talk to the commenters who made personal observations about the accused. They wanted any information that might identify these people, including email address and IP numbers. The newspaper resisted on the grounds that the identities were protected as reporters' sources. The court refused to quash the subpoena for two of the five.

In the end, the defendant, Frank Price, was convicted; local news reports on the trial make no mention of the anonymous commenters, so that there is no way to say if these people had accurate or reliable information about the case. That is a big problem with web commentary. People acting from any motive have access to a worldwide audience. Their words are indelible, infinitely copyable, impossible to challenge or correct. Their gossiping about the most trivial things, or most serious topics — even to suggest murder — just flows out.

In the past, conversations like the one discussing the 5-year-old's murder were held in living rooms, barrooms and coffee counters. The participants were known to one another, were looking at each face-to- face. Now they are available years later, all across the world. For instance, here are a few selected from a vigorous discussion after the trial ended with a sentence of 70 years for the murderer. The conversation in the comments took an ugly turn toward the young victim's mother, Tonia:

It's a rare case that the authorities or the injured parties decide to pursue anonymous web posters. It's a difficult process, usually expensive, requiring lawyers and much time. And then, outing one's tormenters may serve only to enlarge the audience for the insults, as a New York involving a model and a fashion student.

This impulse to vigilante lynching is just what the founding fathers were afraid of when they were trying to write a constitution that protected political opinions but kept a lid on the passions of the mob.

The country has continued to debate what are the appropriate limits to speech. The founding fathers had their go at it in 1798 when they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed at foreign agitators during a mini war with France, but which were criticized as an attempt to stifle criticism of the government here. Today, advocating the overthrow of the government by force is against federal law , as is treason, insurrection and assassination. Further, there is a huge body of well-established case law about libel and slander. It's clear that everyone does not have the right to say anything. It's eloquently clear in the criminal courts, where one of the fundamental liberties in our democracy is the right to face our accusers in court. If you cannot be charged with embezzlement unless to have a chance to confront your accusers (usually the prosecutors), why should some anonymous blogger be able defame you as an embezzler and destroy your name and reputation on a whim, out of spite, or for any other reason.

In recent years, there have been some particularly ugly cases:

Despite all this, a solution will be difficult because of privacy issues. Anonymity does not equate to privacy; publishing material on the web is different from reading. But any mechanism devised to civilize the chaotic discussions on the web is bound to intensify the already serious problem about privacy.

The amount of material that businesses are collecting and trading on the web is appalling. They have been tracking what people buy, and selling that information to other businesses that sell similar products for a long time, an activity easily centralized by credit cards. The web carries this much farther in that the search engines and web merchants have a window into what people are thinking, by being able to record and collate what web pages people look at. It's not a very big stretch to imagine that governments can get in on this.

In January, at a session of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, security experts discussed the vast amount of crime on the web, and the growing threat of cyber warfare. The solutions were some kind of global policing of the web. One suggestion that Craig Mundie, a Microsoft executive, made drew fire from defenders of the free web. It was for a system to license access to the web — a driver's license for internet users.

This thinking goes way too far, and is fundamentally as dangerous as the chaos brewing now, but the reaction in the comments on the handful of news stories that covered this part of the forum illustrate how this total lack of restraint can destroy any thoughtful debate.

On the RawStory web site, which refers to an Agence France-Presse report, the discussion veered into this vitriol:

On the popular tech web site Slashdot responses were more cartoonish:

And in Microsoft's hometown paper, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, there was more temperate critiques:

The internet did not start out about freedom as such. It was, in fact, a vehicle for the free exchange of information among people who knew each other — scientists and government and military officials. The protocols for the flow of information on this network of networks were written without commerce or flirting or campaigning in mind.

Before the public dove into the internet, a common critique of politics was the dominance of soundbites manufactured by the political fixers who advised candidates and officeholders.

The voting public has long been suckered by meaningless campaign phrases like "morning in America", or "a thousand points of light". These carefully crafted phrases were intended to be a substitute for discussion of the inconvenient details of public policy.

Now, in addition to the soundbites, we not only have partisan cable television news and radio talk shows and comic news broadcasts, but we also have the chaotic internet, with communities of anonymous adherents from the far right to the far left, trading their own nasty, poorly written one-liners.

Posted 21 February 2010

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© 2010 Barry Schiffman