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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 illegal.

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."

No kidding.

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 of fear.

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 disposal.

Let's start there.

I'd love to hear what you think. Visit askleo.net and enter 12268 in the go to article number box to access the show notes, the transcript and to leave me a comment. While you're there, browse the hundreds of technical questions and answers on the site.

Till next time, I'm Leo Notenboom, for askleo.net.

Article C3314 - March 10, 2008 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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5 Comments
Ken B
March 10, 2008 1:20 PM

Posting anonymously would be made illegal, and it would be the website owner who gets fined?

I think a big "WTF" is deserved here.

(Well, I guess Mr. Couch realized that they couldn't go after the one actually posting anonymously, and "someone" has to be held "responsible".)

Up next: unsigned letters to the editor to be made illegal, with the newspaper being fined for printing them?

Ken B
March 10, 2008 1:25 PM

Oh, and the article to which you link says that not only do you need to "register" your full name and e-mail address, but also your _physical_ address. And just how is one to verify this? Send a letter to every person who wants to post? (And at whose expense?) And even then, how do you verify the person's name? (I guess registered mail, with restricted delivery?)

Not to mention verifying this for every post, to make sure that you don't post using someone else's identity.

"Please allow 3-4 weeks to verify your identity before your post appears."

Greg Bulmash
March 11, 2008 2:10 PM

Well, if we ever institute national IDs with biometrics, then you can just sell a $50 biometric identifier that people can plug into their PC via USB port (or OEMs can build in) and develop an API so web site owners can verify identity via that.

But until that's possible, verifying user identities is a pipe dream. And even once that happens it will still be hacked and gamed at every opportunity. But we'll *feel* better.

Ken B
March 12, 2008 7:13 AM

And don't forget to carry your ID card at all times, and be ready to present it to any police officer at any time for any reason.

Kate Murray
May 27, 2008 12:35 PM

Sometimes anonymity is valuable. It allows a comment to be considered on its merits, rather than evoking responses ad hominem from people who would recognize and automatically support or condemn the commenter; I've seen this on my hometown's newspaper website.

As long as people can write on bathroom walls or send unsigned letters, there will be anonymous slurs about one person or another. I have certainly known people who abused the power to make anonymous posts to the point that an old-fashioned spanking was probably the most appropriate response, but unless an anonymous communication involves a clear violation of law (threats, for example), I reckon legal entanglementis a recipe for waste of effort.

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