Have you ever been tempted to let loose online on some loud, arrogant blogger without revealing your identity? What about a public figure? Or someone in your department you're having a beef with?
Venting harsh criticism anonymously is a long-standing internet tradition, and for better or worse, it's part of the culture of the online world. Many dislike it, and some "moderated" forums try to discourage it. But it's difficult to completely eliminate it, and it would be unwise to do so.
A recent court case sheds interesting light on the issue.
In August, the New York Supreme Court ruled that Google must reveal any identifying information it had about a blogger who anonymously used its Blogger.com service to lash out against a professional model, Liskula Cohen. The blogger posted a photo of Cohen and called her names such as "psychotic," "ho," and "skank."
In response to the court ruling, Google immediately turned over what it had, which was the blogger's email address and the IP address of her computer. Like many internet services, Blogger.com doesn't require you to use your real name, and many people feel that they're hidden this way. But the information Google had was enough to uncover the person.
The model could have sued the blogger for defamation. As Judge Joan Madden wrote when explaining her decision to force the blogger to unmask herself, "The thrust of the blog is that Cohen is a sexually promiscuous woman." That's potentially actionable.
But matters were resolved, according to reports, politely. After Cohen learned of the blogger's identity, she spoke to her on the phone-the two knew each other-and they patched things up.
This case, however, has potential repercussions beyond a squabble between two individuals. Free speech advocates are concerned about the chilling effect it might have on the internet as a communication medium. The internet has been called the best development in participatory democracy since universal suffrage.
But freedom on the internet has always been the snarly sort, with ranters standing on invisible soapboxes, tossing invective at anyone and everybody. The online world can seem at times the ultimate refuge for sociopaths releasing years of pent-up frustration.
As with much else, balance is needed. In her ruling, Judge Madden quoted a Virginia court: "The protection of the right to communicate anonymously must be balanced against the need to assure that those persons who choose to abuse the opportunities presented by this medium can be made to answer for such transgressions."
As in the offline world, if you say something online about another person that's untrue and that causes the person harm, you may have crossed the line and opened yourself up to legal problems. As a society we recognize that freedoms come with responsibilities.
Google also recognizes the need for balance. After the court ruling, a Google spokesperson explained that the company divulges user information only when ordered to do so by a court. According to Google's Andrew Pederson, "We sympathize with anyone who may be the victim of cyberbullying. We also take great care to respect privacy concerns and will only provide information about a user in response to a subpoena or other court order."
Online anonymity has a positive side beyond the perceived protection it offers to online hecklers, taunters, and bullies. Many people post using a "handle," or assumed nickname, rather than their real name to be able to offer their experiences or opinions about sensitive subjects without fear of embarrassment among family and friends or retribution at work.
It can be great solace to someone who has suffered the same when you anonymously share online the experience you may have had as a victim of child abuse, racial or religious discrimination, or an inherited medical condition. Similarly, speaking freely but anonymously about your views regarding sensitive political issues can promote the common good without getting you in trouble with your boss at the office.
This lower-court case doesn't by any stretch mean the end of online anonymity. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the famous 1995 case McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, offered these words:
"Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views. ... Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. ... It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation ... at the hand of an intolerant society."
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.