Friday, May 25, 2012

In NY, Speech Is Free, But You Pay For Anonymity

H/T Bryan for pointing us to this post by Matt Peckham in Time's Techland blog:
Watching faceless online passerby troll bloggers or mock fellow scribblers can be a drag, but what if legislators’ answer to online ne’er-do-wells was to ban anonymous comments from websites entirely? That’s what the state of New York is planning to do in identical bills — S.6779 and A.8688 – proposed by the New York State Assembly that would “amend the civil rights law” in order to “[protect] a person’s right to know who is behind an anonymous internet posting.”

The bill would require a web administrator to “upon request remove any comments posted on his or her web site by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate.” By “web site,” the bill means just what it seems to: Any New York-based website, including “social networks, blogs forums, message boards or any other discussion site where people can hold conversations in the form of posted messages.”

That sound was, of course, the noise of a few of our nation's founders turning in their graves. For example, the various pseudonymous authors of the Federalist Papers are surely rotating rapidly.

I have published under my real name (well, OK, my real nickname) for decades. But faced with such a law I would make up a pseudonym just to defy it. Anonymous or pseudonymous speech emphatically does have a place in the discourse of a free society. And it is protected under the First Amendment, as our nation's founders understood without having to have it explained to them in words of one syllable.

Based on the proposed law, I have to assume that New York wants its residents to abandon altogether the web hosting business. That suits me, or as Texans say, it's no skin off my back. When I had self-hosted business and personal sites (as opposed to Blogger-hosted or WordPress-hosted), my host was about 30 miles north of me, and they placed as few restrictions as possible on what I posted. That's how it's supposed to be in America.


  1. I think these people should try to comment at a site while in the guise of a woman or someone who is gay, and see what happens to them.

    There are reasons to remain anonymous on the web, and they include personal safety.

    I don't worry about it because in Florida anyone coming after me is a target, but if you aren't former military and law enforcement, the web whackoes are a realistic concern.

  2. Bryan, I am reminded of a friend's then-elderly (now deceased) mother, an educated woman in the traditions of the last century and the one before that, a woman who simply could not fathom the Internet, and as a consequence, dreaded it and begged her daughter not to get involved with it.

    It's easy to laugh... it wasn't as if she perceived all the possible problems and wanted to spare her daughter that kind of trouble; it was that she thought of the Internet as some kind of gigantic electronic fishnet ready to descend on and trap any unsuspecting person, especially a young woman. But maybe in her wrongheadedness she reached the right conclusion after all. (The daughter? She uses the Internet heavily in one of her lines of work, and is probably one of the most technologically comfortable and competent persons I know.)

    Everyone has a right to a great degree of anonymity and privacy if they feel the need. The single most destructive result of the "war on terror" (a largely artificial construct, IMHO) is that it allows the would-be spies to gather information without purpose and without limit, and store that information forever, for use by Dog-knows-whom. It is too late for me to regain my anonymity, but if America's problems today are to be solved, there needs to be some serious discussion of unpleasant matters on the 'net... and only anonymity allows people to engage the dialogue without fear of retribution.

    Every time I see the Tea Partiers carrying guns to political rallies, I wonder if one of us is the next target. If so, the 'net will help them identify us and what we said. I don't think that is what our founders had in mind in framing the Second Amendment, to threaten our exercise of the First.



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