Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Online Anonymity: The Ring of Gyges Made Real"

Paul Zimmerman has a great post on online anonymity over at his blog.

Now compare with Paul and I have to say about online anonymity with this paper from the Cato Institute.

The writer, Jonathan Wallace, concludes:
Anonymous and pseudonymous speech on the Internet forms a part of the rich tradition of such speech in prior media, including print, and is entitled to the same First Amendment protections. Legislation against anonymity threatens to end that rich tradition and should be opposed. If such legislation is passed, we can be confident that the Supreme Court will again find it inconsistent with our Constitution and our history.
Wallace cites several examples of anonymity and pseudonymity from American history and how the Supreme Court has consistently upheld anonymity as "a shield from the tyranny of the majority."

I generally agree with these sentiments and Oliver Wendell Holmes belief that: “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas. . . . The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market." However, the Republic is not in danger if commenters must reveal their identities on the Daily News website. It is not whistleblowing that goes on over there, but mean-spirited accusations meant to discredit and defame individuals who have identified themselves publicly. And there is a legal tradition going back to Roman days that guarantees an individual the right to face his or her accusers.

Also, to have a truly open debate and a free marketplace of ideas, one must be able to judge all the merits of the argument. A person's identity has much to do with their credibility and veracity. You wouldn't buy a car without knowing the make and model. Why should you buy an idea without knowing its source?

Victor Davis Hanson, as usual, has it right:
Anonymity on rare occasions may have a place in protecting whistleblowers or honest journalistic sources fearful of retaliation. But lately it is being misused in a variety of different contexts to destroy people and institutions — and as a way for authors of all sorts to avoid responsibility for what they write...

Anonymity is a vicious but seductive Siren that lures its heedless listeners to shipwreck on the shoals.

1 comment:

Paul E. Zimmerman, M.A. said...

Thanks for the link, Tom!

What I took away from Wallace's paper is that what we've both been saying is true, that anonymity does have a limited utility that ought to be preserved for appropriate, constructive uses. However, like you've pointed out, the examples Wallace cites are not that of people using anonymity for vicious, vindictive character assassination. In fact...

Tom: "However, the Republic is not in danger if commenters must reveal their identities on the Daily News website."

...I agree, but I would add that the Republic is in danger if we allow the standard for anonymity to include unrestrained, unaccountable viciousness. Unfortunately right now, thanks to confused arguments people have adopted in regard to the issue, I'm afraid that is the case.