Anonymity, Cyberbullying, and Accountability on the Internet

Some recent posts by Jim West (as well as other news stories) have caused me to consider something; how and in what way does ‘Freedom of Speech’ apply to the internet?  When it comes down to it, most people who utilize Freed of Speech are utilizing it by taking responsibility for their words; there is clear accountability.  On the internet where anonymous posters and commenters reign supreme, where people are bullied to extensive proportions (and where such attacks are permanent and readily available)—driving some to commit suicide (not a case of anonymous comments, but still a similar effect where permanent statements about someone online drove them to do this).  If a bully in school were doing this, a student could report the harassment to an authority and, more often than not, there would be direct disciplinary repercussions for the bully’s actions.    On the internet, which is worldwide, with no definable boundaries or jurisdictions, where anyone with a modicum of skill with computers can figure out how to change their IP addresses, get around firewalls, or worse, it is much more difficult to prosecute an individual who harasses or bullies another.

And even if you have a blog or website, block that person from posting there, creating a new, anonymous blog is quite easy.  In fact it is not just easy to slander or harass someone, but it is just as easy to impersonate someone (see the recent trial–ending in a conviction, thankfully–involving Raphael Golb, for example).  If one were deplorable enough, depraved enough, they could go to some hate site and create an account and impersonate the person they are bullying, posting all sorts of things in their name, and often that person would never know until they Google-searched themselves or someone else did for them—often a potential employer or worse, and there is no way to prove it wasn’t you unless you got a court order to do so.  Even if a case went to court, it takes time to build a case, and all the time that goes by is just more time for those words to remain up for others to find and read and react.  Plus, you will have to pay, eventually—whether it is for the time off from work to meet court dates or paying a lawyer—just to remove the slanderous content!  It’s pretty scary to think about; insidious people exist everywhere, and certainly this has already happened.

All of this leads back to the initial question: Should ‘Freedom of Speech’ protect anonymous slander, harassment, people who speak with no accountability because they can hide behind faux names and identities (or someone else’s)?   To be clear, I am not saying people should be censored; that isn’t it at all.  People should say what they want to say and I don’t think that there is any need to limit that freedom.  But I do believe that there should be accountability.  Right now there really isn’t any of which to speak.

Note: I do certainly appreciate the fact that, due to anonymity, people are more inclined to say how they feel.  That is respectable, but there is seemingly more negative, if not dark, comments and reactions that come along with anonymity than there are positive ones.  The fact that the internet is so permanent and so easily available around the world, there is no escape from the negative comments–short of moving to a secluded island where the inhabitants are without electricity, or to Amish country.   So, in my mind, there are only a few options: remove anonymity online all together or create new laws which allow for easier prosecution of bullies online, along with ways to remove, without cashed data, all the defamatory remarks.

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