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Online “Anonymity” Takes Center Stage

Online “Anonymity” Takes Center Stage

It seems as though a disconnect has begun to form. Is the Internet “anonymous” or not?

Conventional wisdom dictates that nothing we do online is truly anonymous, that everything leaves a trail. Brand reputation management calls for constant monitoring of both business and personal brands to protect ourselves, as well as refraining from putting anything out there for the Googlebots to find that we wouldn’t want to defend to employers.

And yet, the alleged anonymity of our online lives is blamed for everything from message board trolls to more serious offenses. Universities and Facebook groups are calling for a ban of a certain regularly offensive college gossip website, and a Kentucky lawmaker wants to legally require Internet users to post to message boards under their real names to curb online bullies.

So if the Internet is never truly anonymous, why the need for bans and laws restricting anonymity that doesn’t really exist? I think the answer is that online anonymity is far murkier a subject than some realize. In many ways, our online lives may indeed be conducted beneath a cloak of secrecy. It’s how far we test the limits of that secrecy that can get us into hot water.

It is unlikely, for example, that the average user of Juicy Campus will spend the time and resources required to determine where an anonymous derogatory post about them originates.  Victims of bullying or harassment on the site or others turn to their university authorities or activist groups to attempt to address the problem. But when the site’s nastier users go too far, the authorities step in and expose the perpetrator, as was the case recently for a Colgate student who posted a threat of violence against his fellow students.

Truly, it appears that the addition of a criminal element is the only point at which the vastness and relative secrecy of the Internet evaporates. The most popular example at the moment is that of the young Marine caught on tape tossing a puppy off a cliff in Iraq. The Marines are investigating, his family is harassed daily, and the incident will likely affect the young man’s life for many years to come–his eminently Googleable name isn’t doing him any favors.
Another case is even more disturbing. A young mother in Britain was allegedly gang raped in front of her two young children by a group of teenagers, who then put video footage of the attack on YouTube. 600 people viewed the footage before it was flagged as “offensive” and removed from the site. Comments on the video before its removal pointed out the stupidity of putting a crime on the Internet. Perhaps banking that their victim would never see it and the authorities would never find them?

Lynn Crosbie points out in the Globe and Mail this week that the Internet seems to provide an outlet for our “inner demons.” There’s merit to this argument–Internet trolls would likely never engage in the vitriolic harassment they indulge in online were they speaking to their victims face-to-face. Hiding behind a computer screen and message board nickname grants the power to behave in ways frowned upon in the real world. Crosbie acknowledges that this “technology is a gift and guardian in many ways (beginning with the Rodney King footage),” but that “its limitless potential is frightening.”

After viewing the puppy toss video and reading about the YouTube rape, I concur. There is no true anonymity, but there might be just enough to threaten the common decency of our society, the hilarity of all those “2 girls 1 cup” YouTube response videos notwithstanding.

I imagine free-speech advocates (not to mention Fark enthusiasts) will manage to quash the effort in Kentucky, and rightfully so, but will the relative anonymity of the Internet continue to be a target? And should it be?

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