Should Online Anonymity be Outlawed?

In March 2012, New York State Senator Tom O’Mara proposed legislation that would require website administrators to delete comments posted by anonymous users upon request. Policymakers believe that banning anonymous posts will curb those who might partake in cyberbullying and online harassment, as it increases the accountability and responsibility of the post’s author. Many believe that it is the Internet’s anonymity that has allowed cyberbullying to proliferate. Users are often able to send hurtful messages to others without having to fear any negative consequences. Thus, anonymity can allow users to say things online that they wouldn’t otherwise say in real life.

However, others believe that the Internet has flourished particularly because it has allowed users the anonymity needed to express themselves freely. Freedom of expression is considered a cornerstone of democracy; it respects human dignity by allowing citizens to both freely express their own thoughts, and to hear the variety of opinions and ideas that is necessary to make informed decisions. Banning anonymity could hinder this freedom, as people might not feel safe to express controversial or unpopular ideas if the message is permanently attached to their identity. As Carole Lucock and Katie Black argue, anonymity allows the expression of “otherwise unpopular or socially repressed ideas.”[1] Thus, limiting anonymity online could have serious implications for freedom of expression, and democracy in general.

Lucock and Black also argue that while American courts have a robust history of protecting anonymous speech, Canadian courts have not necessarily followed suit.[2] Despite this, a respect for anonymity can be seen in the recognition of an author’s moral rights in Canadian Copyright Law.[3] Moral rights guarantee a creator’s right to be either anonymous or not, in association with works they have created.[4] Disallowing anonymous postings online could violate the author’s moral right to anonymity. As online communications should be protected by copyright law, a Canadian legislator might not be able to propose a law similar to Senator O’Mara’s proposed bill.

The anonymity afforded by the Internet can also help adolescents develop their identity and experiment playing various roles,[5] a chance they might not otherwise be afforded. One study has shown that anonymity can also help adolescents worry less about what others think about them.[6] The online environment can also offer teens different levels of anonymity, whereby they can choose how much information to disclose.[7] For example, in social messaging systems, a teen could choose to reveal their name, but choose not to upload a photo. This feature lets teens control their identities and how much information others can know about them. By instilling values of digital citizenship early on, we can ensure that teens are equipped to use anonymity as a tool to protect their privacy instead of as a means to cyberbully others. Thus, the benefits of allowing anonymity, along with a concern for privacy and freedom of expression, should make us think twice about banning anonymity online.

Read the text of Senator O’Mara’s proposed legislation here. Read our article on anonymous postings here, and on how teens use anonymous social network FormspringMe here.

[1] Carole Lucock and Katie Black, “Anonymity and the Law in Canada”, from Lessons From the Identity Trail: Anonymity, Privacy and Identity in a Networked Society,  edited by Ian Kerr, Valerie Steeves, Carole Lucock. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 468.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Copyright Act, section 14.1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] see Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995.

[6] Patti Valkenburg and Jochen Peter, “Online Communication between Adolescents: An Integrated Model of Its Attraction, Opportunities and Risks”, Journal of Adolescent Health Volume 48,Issue 2 (February 2011): 121–127.

[7] Ibid.