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Op-ed column: Bad move on cyberbullying

Banning anonymous Web posts is sure way to chill free speech

Sunday, June 10, 2012
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Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette
Jeanne A. Benas/For The Sunday Gazette

The day may soon come when you’re not allowed to make an anonymous online comment on an article like this — not at the discretion of The Daily Gazette, but because the state government forbids it. If some lawmakers succeed in a now high-profile push for cyber-regulation, websites hosted in New York may be required to remove all anonymous postings from their pages, unless the authors agree to provide their full names, and verify them with their IP and home addresses.

Why? The authors of the legislation, state Assemblyman Dean Murray from Long Island among them, say they’re trying to stop the (very real) scourge of cyberbullying across the Internet. Unfortunately, both the Internet and the issue are a bit more complicated than the legislation presumes.

Not just anonymous speech

Forget the obvious issues with New York state attempting to regulate a global platform, not to mention the fact that anonymous speech (like “The Federalist Papers,” or Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”) is still legally protected as long as it’s not defamatory. Anonymous posts aren’t even most of the problem. Other mediums like texting, email, chat clients and Facebook pages are far more likely to be centers for cyberbullying — places that aren’t necessarily anonymous.

Ignoring the legal, ethical and technical dilemmas, even the stated justification for the law is unsound. We already have laws on the books that help deal with harassment — even anonymous harassment. Though the laws aren’t perfect, you can already take some recourse in such a situation. We should strengthen those laws, raise cyberbullying awareness and make more resources available to victims.

It’s worth recognizing — cyberbullying is a very real thing and anyone who uses the Internet can see it’s only gotten worse in recent years. The anonymity of the Internet gives people a feeling of detachment that lets them behave in repugnant ways they otherwise wouldn’t face-to-face. Add to that the many dimensions of electronic communication we have today, and you have a serious cultural problem.

Note how I say “cultural problem,” not “political” or “technological.” The Internet just highlights what people are already all about — and occasionally that’s just being completely despicable to each other. Putting a stop to it is more than just wholesale banning anonymity on the Net.

So then, what is it? Why try to pass something like this? I don’t think it’s any conspiratorial scheme to silence dissent; I’ll give the lawmakers the benefit of the doubt and assume they just want a more civil society, which is a noble goal. This seems more like misunderstanding the Internet, not wanting to control it like others in power do. And for the ultra-powerful, the Internet is a scary thing — everyone now has access to the world’s information and can interact on a scale unprecedented in human history. It’s truly a game-changer.

Money as speech

I’m a citizen, though, not someone with that much power. When I think about the dangers of anonymity, I think about money in politics — another game-changer. It’s something all lawmakers ought to be acutely aware of in the post-Citizens United world. If money is considered speech, that means that anonymous, unlimited campaign contributions can take on the same bullying character that lawmakers like Murray seem to only attribute to Internet speech.

Think about the power that moneyed interests hold over lawmakers who are supposed to represent the people. When lawmakers don’t do the bidding of those who write the checks, the implicit threat is that the sponsors will put their money elsewhere in an effort to put someone into office who “behaves.” Sounds like bullying to me.

So if this law passes, which it very well may, it won’t be possible to leave an anonymous Internet comment, but it will be just fine to anonymously donate a million dollars to a candidate with the expectation of political favors down the line. Does that make sense?

If these lawmakers were truly concerned about anonymous speech, and the bullying-like impact they think it has in the cyber world, it’s worth a look at how fixing money in politics might have a similar impact, and do more than verifying Internet comments.

Effect on the young

I don’t bring up the comparison simply because they’re two things that involve anonymity. I bring it up because of the imprint our political discourse leaves on the generation coming of age. Sure, not all kids are following campaign season as closely as the rest of us, but politics is part reflection, and part driver, of our general culture, from which kids learn the life lessons on civil behavior.

At its heart, this is a cultural issue exacerbated by technology that we’re still trying to figure out. The people who hate the Internet know: You can’t take away people’s rights in one broad sweep, because they’ll notice. But pick away here and there, using something like cyberbullying as justification, and you open the door to a long road of Internet regulation — even if that’s not where right-minded legislators like Murray wanted to end up at the beginning with a couple of laws cracking down on Internet trolls.

I admire Murray’s desire to put an end to cyberbullying and encourage a more civil society, but this just isn’t the way. That opinion, I will put my name to — though I think it’s fine if you don’t want to do the same.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

 
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