Technology allows for both freedom and abuse, and the law attempts to walk the line between them.
It didn't take long for anonymity on the Internet to become a contentious issue, and for good reason. Anonymity is problematic.
It is usually possible, even easy, for users on the Internet to hide
their true identities to a degree. Most Internet protocols have weak or
no authentication in them and it's usually not too hard to keep your
real name from other services, like social networking sites or blog
There are all manner of good and bad reasons for doing this. The good reasons, expounded well in the EFF's (Electronic Freedom Foundation) brief on anonymity
include protecting the identity of those engaging in controversial political speech.
The founding fathers were serial anonymists. They wrote constantly
for public consumption under pseudonyms, I suspect because personal
attack in public debate was an even greater problem then than it is
now. Taking one's name off an argument leaves just the argument.
Any student of American history knows of The Federalist Papers
essays written in 1788 and 1789 in support of the proposed US
constitution, and especially for the ratification debate in New York.
They were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay
under the name Publius. Anti-Federalists wrote their own anonymous
arguments under the names Cato and Brutus.
Unlike speech, anonymity on the Internet isn't free. Not everyone's
Publius these days, so a lot of speech isn't just free, it's cheap. And
while Hamilton must have paid for the publication of the Federalist
Papers, When you write something anonymously on Blogger or MySpace you
are doing so as a user on their system and you have agreed to follow
their rules. As our Jim Rapoza has pointed out
violating these terms, even just by providing a fake e-mail address,
can put you in legal jeopardy, as it did the defendant in the MySpace suicide case
who was convicted for creating a fake profile.
Unlike Jim, I'm not comfortable saying that we have a right to
violate Internet services' terms of service. I say that if you don't
like the terms of service, don't use the service. Abusive people often
hide behind anonymity to intrude on the privacy and rights of others,
so services often need to insist in real identities. That's one thing,
and it's another to say that violating those terms violates a Federal
As a policy matter it's reasonable to be concerned about anonymity. As Esther Dyson said in a recent interview
"...it turns out anonymity really encourages bad behavior." She sees it
as a right, but a corrosive force, at least in many cases. She's right.
I would also point out that to me, anonymity is somewhat synonymous
with weak authentication, and that weak authentication is comorbid with
pretty much the full range of Internet security problems, from spam to