Why Internet Anonymity Threatens Freedom Of Speech
The celebration of Internet anonymity can be regarded as contrary to democratic values.
Arianna Huffington, founder of the eponymous Huffington Post, announced this week that within a month, the site would put an end to anonymous comments. She considers that there are too many “trolls” (those people who anonymously disrupt online discussions by making controversial, offensive and/or insulting comments) and considers that people should stand up for what they think.
I couldn’t agree more, not so much because I am convinced that real name policies would reduce the number of insults (as I previously reported on Superception, a Korean experiment has shown otherwise) but as a matter of principle.
I believe that anonymity hinders freedom of speech for four reasons:
- What distinguishes democratic societies from totalitarian ones is individual, personal identity. While a crowd is always anonymous, a human being bases their existence on their personal identity. This is why totalitarian regimes deny any personal identity to their citizens, thereby denying them any individual existence. An individual (which, etymologically, means “one and indivisible”) must not have their own raison d’etre; they must be completely at the service of the totalitarian state that reduces them to an anonymous number. The celebration of Internet anonymity can therefore be regarded as contrary to democratic values.
- Internet anonymity is also contrary to freedom of speech because speech is not free if it is anonymous. Anonymous speech is how dissidents express themselves in authoritarian regimes where, precisely, they cannot speak freely. Incidentally, anonymous speech confers neither rights nor obligations. To me, there is a difference between freedom of speech and freedom of opinion: One can anonymously enjoy freedom of opinion but not freedom of speech. To be spoken freely, opinions must be endorsed by an individual.
- I have always considered the use of anonymity as a sign of cowardice. People use a pseudonym to write online what they don’t want to endorse. Has an anonymous mail ever communicated a positive message? That’s why, as stated by travel rental site Airbnb, “anonymity erodes trust.“
- When someone insults a person (as some anonymous Internet commenters like to do), it generally is because they are not intellectually able to challenge their views. Insult always reflects a shortage of thought. In this regard, it is paradoxical that those anonymous commenters who insult the identity of other people don’t even endorse their own identity.
However, there is at least one situation in which Internet anonymity is valuable (it was notably highlighted by Mathew Ingram in this article). Anonymity is a must use for people who are victims of any kind of abuse – this situation doesn’t only happen in authoritarian regimes – and don’t have the chance to exercise their freedom of speech. Real name policies should provide them with a way to express themselves.