Online Anonymity – Protecting the Bold or the Bully?

The Internet provides the average person with the power to speak on a level that was unimaginable a mere decade ago. Web 2.0 and social networking has effectively opened the door for people to express their views in seconds and have millions of people the world over access those views, and contribute their own in return. But the downside is that people don’t always use this freedom responsibly. It’s not like anonymous speech didn’t exist before the online revolution, but there was a far greater element of control – either by law or by the constraints of the physical world – a published work had to have an established publisher to reach a greater audience and elements of costs and distribution restricted the power of the average person to have his views reach large numbers.

With the explosion of blogging, greater interactivity of websites and social media, these constraints no longer exist. Everyone has an opinion and everyone now has the power to have it heard – well, as long as they have access to a computer and an Internet connection. And of course this is a wonderful development! The average person can now have his voice heard; people under dictators can now speak out and have the world know of their plight; it has brought the world together like never before. And the necessity to protect the right of such individuals to speak anonymously cannot be contested – the freedom to speak out is nothing if you have to fear a bullet in the head in exchange.

But in protecting the freedom fighter, we also protect the bully. You have but to go to the comments section of any blog or YouTube video to see people flood pages with obscenity, graphic language and just unimaginable cruelty. Is it not a sad state of affairs where the right to free speech becomes a right of hate speech? One has to wonder if the same people would be brash, cruel or “brave” enough to spew such hate in person? Then why do they freely do so online? The obvious answer is because they feel they cannot be held responsible for such behavior. They feel invisible and invincible behind avatars and online aliases and freely speak in a manner that would shame them in person.

But it isn’t so cut and dry. The individual is far less hidden than he thinks. The world of Cyberspace has become far more pervaded by law than imagined by John Perry Barlow when he made his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace in 1996. For example, in the UK, a party can apply to the courts for a Norwich Pharmacal Order under which an ISP can be compelled to disclose information enabling a party to identify a user through his IP Address where a party can show that an anonymous user has engaged in an activity that commits some criminal or civil wrong, such as an act of Copyright infringement or Defamation. Similar provisions for disclosure exist in many if not most jurisdictions with established cyberspace law including India. So people should think twice before feeling that they cannot be found out just because they leave belligerent comments under an alias. But let’s face it. Though the remedy exists, due to practical considerations it will employed rarely. Few people would go through the hassle and costs necessary for disclosure when they are likely to get little from an action for damages, especially in a jurisdiction which might require evidential proof of damage to reputation.

But it’s not just about going after the individual. A faster and less costly approach may just be to contact the online service provider asking them to take down the defamatory or infringing material. In the UK and the US, online service providers like Social Networking sites or blogging platforms enjoy protection from liability for such acts under “safe harbor” provisions, as long as they respond promptly to notices making them sufficiently aware of the act in question. This may be a slippery slope though, as service providers would likely take down content as soon as they get a notice, without actually bothering to judge whether the complaint is credible, so that they protect themselves from liability. Though some precautions do exist against such an action – in the US the Digital Millennium Copyright Act specifies that in the event of a counter-notice from a user the ISP must put back the material unless the copyright owner starts proceeding in 14 days.

Though the developments in “the Law of Cyberspace” have done much to help draw the line between protecting the Freedom of Expression, which inherently includes the right of Anonymous Speech, and the right of persons to protect their reputations and personality, these solutions have far from curbed the problem. Real change can only come once people begin to take responsibility for their actions. Individuals need to recognize that while traditional legal constraints may not translate to the online world, this does not mean that one is free to act as wildly and brashly as one wishes. If you would not insult a stranger on the street, why is it okay to do it on twitter? Why do we insist on defying Shaw’s Principle: “Liberty means Responsibility: to be allowed to speak in a public forum one must respect other members of that forum.

This post scarcely covers the problems created by the supposed unlimited freedom online and the solutions developed by law to tackle them. It is meant only to initiate some form of dialogue or possibly just encourage readers to maybe think twice next time they leave a hurtful comment on someone’s blog or twitter feed.

Though it may seem idealistic now, I am drawn by John Perry Barlow’s words, spoken when the Internet was still in its fledgling phase and held unlimited potential for greatness and unprecedented growth, and I am saddened at how far we have come from the vision its pioneers had for it in its inception – “We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.” – Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, John perry Barlow

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