Is making anonymous comments illegal going to stop on-line harassment? I don’t think so.
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This is Leo Notenboom for askleo.net.
I read this morning of a Kentucky congressman who wants to make the ability
to make anonymous online comments
My first reaction, of course is: well fat chance. And apparently even the
lawmaker himself realizes the difficulty, quoting, “… enforcing this
bill if it became law would be a challenge.”
The bill would fine the site owners – people like me, for example – if
anonymous posts were allowed to go through. And we’d be fined per anonymous post.
If this became law, I can see only one course of action … no more comments
at all. Since site owners have no way to actually verify any of the
identification information that a commentor might supply, there’s just no
reasonable way to enact this boneheaded idea.
Fortunately I don’t think this bill will get very far.
That’s not to say that I don’t feel the pain of the problem that the law is
intended to “fix”.
People can be idiots. Otherwise rational and polite people can turn into
raving lunatics and act like spoiled brats when they can do so behind the
safety of anonymity. And children, who haven’t learned the importance of social
norms can be even worse. We’ve all seen and heard of scenarios where on-line
comments, posting and anonymous email and instant messaging can be used to
harass and bully not just children but adults as well.
Does this mean that anonymity is bad? No. Anonymity is an important tool in
a free and open society. Yes, it can be abused by cowards. But it’s also an
important tool that allows greater freedom of expression without fear of
retribution. For example in the obvious case of wistleblowers, it can result in
important information coming to light that might otherwise remain hidden, out
So what do we do about the underlying problem of on-line abuse?
Well, first recognize that making anonymity illegal won’t fix it. Abusers
will always find a way. (For example the representative might want to realize
that this internet thing is a global phenomenon, and that his proposed law will have
little effect outside of the United States. And those overseas services? They’re just
as easy to use as the domestic ones.)
Restricting the abilities and rights of law abiding citizens in ways that
the abusers will simply sidestep gets us nowhere.
Online bullying and abuse is a serious issue – I get questions related to it
almost every day. In my opinion enough laws are already in place to deal with it;
what’s missing are the resources to enforce and use the tools already at our
Let’s start there.
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Till next time, I’m Leo Notenboom, for askleo.net.