Facebook Age and Anonymity: Civility vs. Freedom of Speech


Standing Against 'Tyranny of the Majority'

The Supreme Court has consistently recognized the vital role of anonymous and pseudonymous speech to democratic dialogue and dissent. In McIntyre v. Ohio Election Commission, the court wrote that anonymous speech is part of "an honorable tradition of advocacy and dissent. . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority."

For dissidents and ordinary citizens in some societies, maintaining anonymity online can mean the difference between life and death. In Saudi Arabia, women often register with social networks pseudonymously because using their real names can be dangerous: In 2008, a woman from Riyadh was killed by her father for chatting with a man on Facebook. And in 2009, many pro-reform Iranians living abroad changed the last names on their profiles to "Irani" in response to widespread governmental harassment over social media activities associated with their real names. That way, they could continue to voice dissent without putting friends and family at risk.

Of course, criminals and trolls also seek to mask their identities online. But it is shortsighted to suggest that the only response is to tear away the veil of anonymity entirely. Many services want to protect their users and the integrity of their businesses from abuse; these sites can craft moderation policies that cultivate the online environments they desire. But the success of those choices in some cases does not suggest that anonymity should be restricted in all cases.

Open online communities give an outlet to people who may not have the opportunity to speak through more traditional media that are carefully managed by content gatekeepers. Put bluntly, anonymous communication has empowered those who might otherwise be silenced. These aspects of Internet communication -- access to content hosts and the ability to speak anonymously -- are far from accidental; they are the result of conscious, technical policy choices rooted in a deep respect for the right to free expression.

As more of our daily dialog migrates to cyberspace, a decision to irrevocably chain every voiced opinion to our real names would weaken that vital "shield from the tyranny of the majority." And imposition of liability on intermediaries would surely destroy many of the platforms and fora for online speech that exist today.

If those opposing the long-standing traditions of anonymous speech have their way, there really would be no such thing as free speech on the Internet. That would be a huge loss for our society and the world. On that point, this free-speech advocate has no second thoughts.

Leslie Harris is President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology. Emma J. Llanso is CDT's Bruce J. Ennis Foundation Equal Justice Works Fellow.

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