Sunday, February 10, 2008

Yelling "Fire!" in a Crowded Chat Room

First Amendment Ruling Protects Internet Trolls - Slashdot
Muslim Groups Attempt to Censor Wikipedia - Slashdot
Spies' Battleground Turns Virtual - Robert O'Harrow Jr., Washington Post

I've long held the belief that one should use their real name, or at least a consistent online name, when leaving comments on message boards or comment pages. I think if you are going to say something on the interwebs then you should stand behind it with the reputation of your name. At the same time though, I don't think forcing everyone to use a consistent name or their real name is right. Anonymity is a good thing, even if it is sometimes more of a necessary evil than a help in online discussions. So naturally I support the court ruling in favor of allowing comment trolls to maintain their anonymity. Message boards and comment threads need such openness. It allows the poster to speak their mind, or derail a thread, without fear or reprisal. More importantly, allowing anonymity as a general rule for message boards and comments allows the moderators of various boards to maintain their own set of rules for what is objectionable content. Some can use a scorched earth policy of no foul language or troll-like behavior, others can require that you use your real name or some can leave it open and intervene only when a certain thread becomes too heated.
The free-speech issue is important to online discussions. It's also important for sites like the Wikipedia as it prevents the exclusion of ideas or images that some may find objectionable. While the Wikipedia is prone to hit jobs by politicians, interest groups and corporations among others, it does a fairly decent job of maintaining a sense of neutrality in its articles and allows for discussion of what is acceptable in an article or not. The Muslim groups criticizing the Wikipedia for refusing to pull images of Muhammad do have a point from their perspective but the purpose of the Wikipedia is not to cater to anything but those in search of information and knowledge. It would not do well for Wikipedia's reputation to pull information due to one groups' complaints.
At the same time (and this is where the necessary evil part truly lives up to its name) the anonymity of the interwebs can aide criminals and terrorists in conducting their business. While the idea of terrorist groups using online sites likes Second Life as a means of planning and plotting seems far-fetched, it isn't inconceivable. But I continue to hold to the idea that anonymity and the use of online names or avatars is right and proper for any web site. Now of course, just as one cannot yell 'fire' in a crowded room, there are instances where speech is not protected. Criminals who use online anonymity to further their interests are obviously cases where breaching that anonymity is necessary. Even so, judicial oversight in those cases is necessary as well. We should all have the benefit of the doubt when it comes to our online identities. Free speech isn't free without that benefit. Thus, while law enforcement groups may contact web admins, board moderators and ISPs for information, these groups must have the recourse of the courts to preserve the rights of their users.
So, for a brief recap: online speech is free speech; I will use my real name when making comments; I will allow anonymous comments on my blog (although I will call you an Anonymous Coward, ala Slashdot); and, while a potential threat, admins and ISPs must maintain their customers' anonymity as much as possible.

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