Recently a bill was introduced on the New York State Senate floor which would make all anonymous online posts subject to removal by another user’s request, unless the individual responsible for the post revealed themselves. If requested, the formerly anonymous blogger, commenter, Facebook user, etc., would need to add their name to their posts and confirm their IP address, legal name, and home address. New York State Senator Thomas F. O’Mara’s bill’s intention is to “provide reasonable protection to individuals from anonymous Internet posters” by targeting and hopefully preventing cyber bullying, defamation, and other unlawful and damaging activities.
Cyber-bullying, defamation, and other related unlawful activities are major social problems that deserve attention. Anonymous online users can harass both businesses and individuals and the (potentially unfounded) reputational damage is difficult to combat without a mechanism for identifying its source. For businesses and individuals with a personal brand, such reputational damage can lead to economic damages in the form of lost profits. For instance, the shroud of anonymity could allow a business to post anonymous disparaging online reviews of a competitor in an effort to gain market share. Readers would not be aware that the negative statements were coming from a competitor instead of a legitimate customer with an actual experience.
In some precedent cases, courts have required formerly anonymous bloggers to be revealed when they are believed to have broken the law. In the 2009 case of Cohen vs. Google (Blogger), fashion model Liskula Cohen petitioned for ‘pre-action’ discovery from Google Inc, which owns Blogger.com, after she was featured by the anonymous blogger behind the blog “Skanks in NYC” and called various unpleasant names. The court granted Ms. Cohen’s petition, forcing Google to reveal the anonymous blogger’s identity.
If passed, this bill could help fight against cyber-bullying, online defamation, and other imperfections of the internet as a communication medium, but there are unintended consequences as well. Stripping away online anonymity could potentially impede all online discussions, including those that are healthy and/or positive. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 41% of Americans surveyed in January 2011 cited the internet as at least one source for their consumption of news. This figure has more than doubled since 2005 and current projections point even higher. One of the factors behind the internet’s popularity for news is its dynamic nature, which provides for relatively unrestricted debates on any topic, including current events, and connects people with disparate views in a fashion that would otherwise not be feasible. By restricting online anonymity, the bill would likely also stifle healthy conversations on controversial topics. Online contributors may not feel comfortable speaking freely or even not speak at all for fear of retribution. For instance, we may lose the information provided by an industry insider / whistleblower who doesn’t wish to jeopardize their professional life or an oppressed individual who fears for his own safety. Does it make sense to force this type of identifying information on the internet when even television news organizations will provide blurred images and altered sound to protect those who cannot otherwise speak freely? Even in less extreme situations, legitimate reviewers in various online forums might become more polite than honest when using their own name.
As is often the case, those voting on the bill will have to weigh the protections it provides over the obstacles it creates. Every restriction on freedom comes at a cost.