Dr. Dawg

Defamation and worse: the case for busting Internet anonymity

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Is there a right to Internet anonymity?

Once I was almost persuaded. Now I believe there is not, and should not, be any such “right.”

I would certainly argue for the right to a private life, including anonymity in that sphere if desired and practicable. But once a person participates in the public arena, he or she has forfeited any such claims.

Worried about retaliation? Problems with an employer? Change the law, offer protections as need be.

What about whistleblowing? The laws as they stand do not offer nearly enough of a shield against retaliation, nor have they been useful or effective in any case. The current legislation that covers the federal public service, for example, has proven to be a sick joke.

So fix the legislation. We’ll all be better off for it.

But in any case, the problem is that, for every honest whistleblower in need of protection, or playful commenter, there are hordes of defamers, liars and stalkers. Some examples:

  • A successful businesswoman is the target of repeated, organized death threats.

  • Parents grieving the loss of their child are subjected to an organized series of taunts, “for the lulz.”

  • A Canadian anti-Nazi fighter, Richard Warman, is repeatedly defamed by commenters hiding behind masks of anonymity.

The cowards participating in this sort of thing have, until very recently, been permitted to remain unaccountable. But legislation is evolving.

Recently, the owners of the far-right website Free Dominion lost their final battle to maintain the confidentiality of two individuals who defamed Warman, and will have to pony up some hefty legal bills as well.

In Los Angeles Ontario, a judge recently ordered the “outing” of an anonymous defamatory blogger.

The laws, they are a-changing’.

Now, to declare interest, I’ve been the occasional target of these work-in-the-dark types myself. When my late partner was dying in 2006, amongst the many messages of goodwill I received from bloggers and commenters right across the political spectrum, one individual took it upon himself to wish her “a slow and painful death,” and I guess he got his wish. More recently, two or three of the blogosphere’s bottom-feeders have made me a kind of project, issuing regular defamatory accusations at their sites.

I know that feelings run high in the blogosphere on the question of anonymity. It can be fun, and liberating, and the motives for it can be entirely innocent. But for too long, irresponsibility and lack of accountability have come, in some people’s minds, to be equated with “freedom of speech.”

Nuh-uh. Not buying it. Anything does not go.

Op-eds and letters to the editors of newspapers must be signed. Why not blogposts and comments? What’s the moral difference?

There is none. Play in private, stay private. Play in public, be prepared to identify yourselves—or get identified, and don’t whinge about it. Right, J. Meir aka “Backseat Blogger”? Remember where repeated defamation got you, Mark G.?

Let me be clear: the anonymity of commenters and co-bloggers here at Dawg’s will continue to be protected. But this is a courtesy, as they well know. For the most part, the folks who post and leave messages here are a civilized lot who are genuinely interested in debate. Whatever their reasons for adopting “handles,” they generally govern themselves like responsible citizens.

If something unconscionable were to slip past me, however, I would have no difficulty cooperating with a legal requirement to identify the culprit, and such requirements really need to be much more clearly in place.

Internet anonymity can be, and too often is, the enemy of civil discourse. It is a privilege, not a right. And those who abuse the privilege should forfeit it.

[H/ts Damian Penny and Hollaback Ottawa]

UPDATE: A well-articulated alternative view. Note, however, that I do not call for the complete disappearance of anonymity on the Web, but for accountability. To repeat myself, anonymity is not an unqualified right that trumps the rights of others not to be defamed, harassed or threatened.

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This page contains a single entry by Dr. Dawg published on August 30, 2011 12:05 PM.

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