Sunday, July 26, 2015
The cloak of anonymity should not protect those who abuse it online
Should anonymous posts be permitted on websites and, if they are, should the posters' anonymity be protected at all costs?
The limit to how much anonymity should be protected seems to have been answered in part in June, when the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that an Internet service provider must reveal the name of an anonymous commenter on a website who made defamatory comments about a politician back in 2011. (The wheels of justice are not as swift as making an online post.)
As Bill Freivogel, a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, told Chris Dettro, a staff writer at The State Journal-Register, "defamation is not protected by the First Amendment" of the U.S. Constitution.
The ruling revisits an issue that has long plagued websites: Should anonymous comments and posts be permitted?
The website reddit has been facing its ownissues over what, if anything, to do about anonymous posters who contribute violent, racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive threads of discussion to its site. On a site that built and prided itself on being open to the comments of users, many of those took issue with a recently departed CEO who tried to crack down on some of the more egregious user posts.
There are times when people posting opinions to a website might fear that adding their voices to a discussion could have personal or professional repercussions, so the cloak of anonymity presents a way for them to contribute without risking retaliation from those who might take issue with what they say.
Too often, however, posters use that anonymous status to post uncivil comments, expressing views they might not broadcast if they had to put their names to the words.
Years ago in a column, I quoted Stephen L. Carter, the author of Integrity (Basic Books, 1996) and a Yale Law School professor: "'If the fear of retaliation causes us not to stand up for our principles, then what kind of principles are they?"
Carter's question remains a strong one to ask today. If some Internet users strongly believe in a particular issue or have a strong response to someone else's opinions, the right thing to do is to have the conviction to attach their names to their views.
On the blog I maintain for this column, anonymous comments are permitted. Most users, however, choose to include their names with their posts, whether those posts agree or disagree with a point I or others have made. While a spam filter catches a good deal of ads for curious products, I haven't had to set up the comments section to require all users to verify their identities before being allowed to post.
My decision has to do with the civility and responsibility the contributors exhibit in making their posts. Like many others who run sites that allow comments, I'd like to keep the ability for readers to make comments as simple as possible. I thank my readers for making such a decision easy to make.
There's nothing ethical about using anonymity as a bludgeon to make posts that are vicious or cruel. When users choose to go such a route, they deserve to be called out.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.