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Britain to Destroy Internet Anonymity?

Society needs weapons against cyberbullying, which can be a seriously harmful activity, and against libel that is shielded by anonymity. But somehow, surprise surprise, neoliberal governments are using those worthy goals, in Great Britain now (but in New York last month), to advance a sledgehammer attack on internet anonymity.

A Guy Fawkes (Anonymous) Mask

Photo: Frederik Hermann / Flickr.

I’m talking about this: New Law to Force Identification of Trolls Set to be Unveiled. Well, no, that headline is wrong: the new law would force identification of alleged trolls, without allowing the accused a chance to challenge that characterization in a court of law.

The new law is being pushed forward in the understandably emotional aftermath of the Nicola Brookes case, where cyberbullies set up a fake and slanderous Facebook page about her. Facebook was required to reveal the names and other identifying information about the bullies, which I for one 100% support.

But you’re wrong if you think all that the new law will go after are internet bullies who have really hurt people. Flexibility is already here, and offensive speech is what often matters, not evidence of injury:

In March, a British student was jailed for 56 days for tweeting racist abuse of a popular black soccer player, Fabrice Muamba, [after he] suffered an almost fatal heart attack during a match.

Joan Smith, a columnist writing in The Independent newspaper in Britain, condemned the abuse as stupid and unfeeling, but also accused the court that sentenced the student of bowing to public opinion.

“A custodial sentence is wildly excessive and has worrying implications for freedom of expression, which is too important a subject to be brushed aside on grounds of ‘public outrage,’ ” she wrote.

The bottom-line problem with the proposed law is that it would bypass the court system. Instead, those who allege they have been cyber-bullied or cyber-libeled simply go to the host site company, make the allegations, and if the company doesn’t respond by revealing the identities of the accused, the alleged victim can take the company to court. Left in corporate hands is the decision whether to carefully filter illegitimate complaints out of the process or to simply reveal anonymous identities to virtually every complainant. No, internet companies will not spend a significant chunk of monies that would otherwise be profits protecting your free speech.

Bigger-picture-wise, by removing from the court system and handing to private-profit corporations the decision on whether a cyberbullying or libel complaint is legitimate or illegitimate, we see how neoliberals typically respond to a social problem and how much value they put on free speech: privatize; hardly any.

Me, I like free speech, and if Mark Twain and Shakespeare thought anonymity was a useful tool, a useful protection, maybe it’s something worth preserving.

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