Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Real-Name Policy: An End to Free Speech?

In the U.S., real-name policies have become important tools used by both Facebook and Google+ to create a "real world" environment, with the aim of making it easier for users to find and connect with each other. The companies delete user accounts found using fake names, and this has caused users to complain with some stating their accounts had been wrongfully deleted, while others said they wished to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons.

Meanwhile, real-name policies are increasingly linked with censorship in Asia to combat libel, fraud, pornography, and rumor. In China real name registration has applied to Weibo and many other popular microblogs in China for over a year, and the policies have also created worries, both in the industry and among users. The nation's government, which is known for its strict censorship of the Internet, is gradually forcing the country's microblogs to require users to register their accounts with their real identities. Users who do not comply will no longer be able to publish posts. Real-name registration will make it even easier for officials to track down and punish people posting sensitive content and poses the security risks, which is another way to restrict people’s freedom of speech.

This is a conflation of two completely different things. A service-provider requiring "real names" in order to support its data-mining business is just a nuisance: I don't have to use them, and I don't. A state requirement that I be identifiable throughout the Net whenever I use any form of personal publication service is a law against anonymity, and it violates fundamental human rights. Comparing them without explanation misleads the reader and you, automatically.

In fact, many prominent writers, bloggers, journalists, and academics are already tweeting on microblogs on a real name basis. This is why microblogs took off so quickly. Many of the outspoken ones are already monitored or heavily censored. The new registration requirement probably would not affect what these people write, but it will likely decrease their readership and influence. Ordinary people are limited to one account and they will have to think twice before posting or re-posting content that might be seen as objectionable.

For many citizens, life without online social interaction is unimaginable. Social media pervades everyday lives. In societies where the state has restricted traditional media, the Internet offers an eye-opening and unique atmosphere. Moreover, the ability to connect to a broader network is meaningful to people because it affirms their individual dignity. Minorities and people open to unconventional views can see that they are not alone. Universal awareness of real name registration and the consequential degree of targeted monitoring would diminish this unique and liberating experience. While a relatively small number of netizens rely upon online anonymity to express themselves, the imposition of real name registration is felt by wired societies broadly.

In 2012, South Korea’s Constitutional Court struck down a controversial 2007 law requiring contributors to online forums to use their real names when leaving comments. Although meant to stop abusive postings from anonymous users, the law was found to be undermining freedom of speech. The real-name policy without a doubt infringes the users' right to free speech and to determine personal information, along with the operators' freedom of speech. While authorities claimed that they were preventing libel, underneath their claims is an anti-democratic mind that is trying to muzzle unfavorable press coverage.

Of course, hiding behind online anonymity and spreading false rumors or slandering someone with abusive words is clearly an act of violence.

No, it's absolutely clearly not violence. Violence is hitting people. Speech is not violence, and speech is something we have a right to do freely. Your statement is a pleasant form of pro-despotism brain washing, like "advocating the overturning of a democratically elected government is terrorism."

People who are able to post anonymously are far more likely to say awful things, sometimes with awful consequences, such as the suicides of cyber-bullied young people.

Suicide is an act with multiple causes, and there are multiple ways of helping people to live rather than kill themselves. In South Korea, which has a very high suicide rate—mostly among young people, where it is the highest in the world—the best approach would be to change the school examination system, which causes most of those suicides by putting young people under breaking levels of psychic stress, exacerbated by routine parental amplification, without adequate levels of psychological support. Destroying the right of anonymous speech would save many fewer lives at the cost of massively violating human rights. What possible ideology could cause one to ignore the first and advocate the second?

The abuse extends to hate-filled and inflammatory comments appended to the online versions of newspaper articles.

So what? Our comments columns, from the height achieved by the New York Times to the low achieved by YouTube, are full of rubbish. And it matters not at all, except that we remain, in this respect, a free society full of, as the Supreme Court says, "robust, wide open and uninhibited" public debate.

In addition, there are concerns that the increase in freedom of speech may have side effects, such as the defamation of celebrities online.

So what? "Celebrities" are brands masquerading as human beings. They have chosen a public role that will include "defamation," because they have chosen to become brands. "Public figures" thrust into the public light deserve some protection that those who choose the role do not, as US law recognizes. But those possessing the power of publicity have a "more speech" solution to every problem of adverse publicity, which private citizens do not.

Human dignity is also a cherished value. And uninhibited free expression online promoted by anonymity can result in an assault on human dignity.

Which we can deal with as we deal with other social harms. That does not constitute in any way a case for the destruction of a fundamental right.

However, these wrongdoings can be punished by tracing the Internet address of the user. Implementing a real name policy to control these actions is like burning the house to roast a pig.

No. The argument isn't that it's bad policy. The argument is that it violates a fundamental right.

The protection of speech may bring some discomfort for the time being, but still it is something we should bear. After all, the freedom of expression is an important constitutional value, which is the basis of democracy.

Closer. A fundamental human right is a little more than an important constitutional value.

When striking down a law prohibiting anonymous distribution of leaflets, the Supreme Court wrote that anonymity serves “to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation and their ideas from suppression, at the hand of an intolerant society.” Before clicking “Likes” on Facebook and Google’s policies, think about those not in a position to express their opinions in the real world but feeling comfortable doing so online, those who need help with personal problems, and those in oppressive regimes who have felt free to speak up precisely because they believe that they cannot be identified. Real-name policies reduce some offensive speech, but they also deter people from contributing thoughtfully to controversial topics. Sometimes anonymity allows us to speak the unpopular truth. Anonymous speech can be abused, but it can be useful. And the bad can be impossible to separate from the good. It is just like a lot of our other civil liberties in that respect.

Anonymity doesn't have to be defended only on the supposed practical ground that it does good overall. I have a right to be anonymous in the same way that I have a right not to be tortured, regardless of the degree to which that might at any moment be serving or failing to serve the overall good.

Unfortunately, real-name registration seems to be the easiest way for government to regulate microblogs, but it may endanger netizens' personal safety. More should be done for both government and internet companies to strengthen internet security before rushing to enforce real-name registration. To strike a balance between ensuring the opportunity to participate online for those whose rights will be advanced by anonymity and ensuring that free expression and human dignity are not hijacked by those hiding behind online anonymity, who intentionally want to hurt others and disrupt civil discourse, I think under the real-name policies, there should also be the option of anonymity, if not in registering on a site, at least in one’s posting. Therefore, people may not only say what they truly believe, respectfully, and say only those things that they are willing to have permanently attached to their names, but also participate in a discussion of a sensitive anonymously in order to protect their own privacy and the privacy of family or friends.

In other words, there should be a right of anonymity. And it should be respected by every government at all times, as it should respect the right not to be tortured. My government, your government, and almost all other governments now completely fail that test, as they mostly fail to protect the right against torture. They have little credibility now. They can be expected to perform with increasing unwillingness to respect the right of anonymity as they all become more dependent on pervasive surveillance and predictive data-modeling to increase "social stability," however they define that term.

The Chinese Communist Party and the US Government run the two largest and most powerful societies on earth, and neither of them can be trusted in the slightest to respect the human right of anonymity. The CCP fails comprehensively to respect the rule of law, and intends to use its ability to control the nerve system of humankind within its borders to sustain its power. The USG does not rule a despotic regime, but it has fatally attacked its own system of rights-protection, in a form of autoimmune catastrophe, a terror brought on by successful terrorism. Government disastrously induced panic in the population, serving the short-term political purposes of the clique in charge, and now has embarked on a resulting process of population surveillance and behavioral prediction. This is breeding a "surveillance industrial complex" that will seek its indefinite preservation even after the social panic subsides.

If we're going to save humankind from something very terrifying, the total permanent loss of personal anonymity, we're going to have to assert the right persistently, against all governments, no matter how resentful they are. You flirt with commitment to that reality, try to have it without having to declare for it, and thus demonstrate how absolutely essential it is, because you're terrified to tell the truth already.


Webs Webs

r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:50 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM