The strange relationship between anonymity and online freedom
New legislation around the world is raising questions about the odd relationship between online freedom and anonymity.
When one wants to say something in person, they inherently own what it is they are saying. While this accountability is easy to come by in person, it becomes more difficult depending on the medium that is used to deliver the message.
In journalism, for instance, a person can take ownership of what he or she publishes through the byline. The writer takes ownership over what is said by attaching his or her name to the piece. This means that the writer needs to be truthful in what is said or face penalties for libel and defamation. Such situations become a bit cloudy when a person makes contentious claims about a person, company or organization, however, freedom of speech policies generally allow writers to say what they believe is truthful.
The Internet and anonymity
This situation becomes far more complicated when it comes to applying these policies online, especially when it comes to free speech. The ways in which people can comment and express their opinions online are far more multifaceted than they have been in the past. A comment in a forum, through Twitter or Facebook or even a full fledged blog post can be composed by anyone with access to the Internet.
However, unlike in conventional journalism, the byline is not always accurate if included at all. A person can say virtually anything that they please, without necessarily being identifiable. There are both good and bad repercussions from this. On the one hand, it means that people can be free to say (within certain parameters) whatever it is they would like without fear of repercussions. In parts of the world where potentially controversial comments can lead to prison time, this is a vital component to being able to bypass harsh free speech limiting policies.
On the other hand, this can sometimes allow people to be too willing to say something that might be too controversial. Numerous people will use tor twitter accounts to make comments that they would not have had they not been protected behind their handle. This also allows people to publish content that could be falsified, leading to instances of libel and defamation, but without the attached byline.
Controversial new policies
The latter situation is one that has become particularly controversial in numerous countries. The international organization Reporters Without Borders recently reported that in Armenia, the country;s parliament is considering a bill that would ban anonymity online. The drafters of the bill explain that it is aimed at limiting defamation online by discouraging anonymity, but in practice, the bill's ramifications could be a slipper slope.
"Although the goal given by the parliamentarians is praiseworthy, this bill poses serious dangers to online freedom of information in Armenia," said RWB's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk head, Johann Bihr. "The bill's vague and broad wording gives too much leeway to the judges who interpret it. But the problem is more than just the wording. The media cannot be held responsible for content they did not create and online anonymity is one of the founding principles of the Internet as a space for debate and freely reported information."
This issue has also emerged in Morocco. Morocco World News reported that a new digital code would undermine privacy and anonymity online. Internet service providers would be required disclose the information of its users to authorities at their request, meaning that anonymity and user privacy would be entirely disregarded.
These policies on the surface seem as though they would make sense, but in order to prevent against the kinds of concerns that RWP brought up, they need to be much better worded. Anonymity is neither good nor bad online, but such legislation can skew this one way or the other.