Online anonymity – a free speech issue?

Can you force free speech on people? That is, is speech still ‘free’ when you have to speak? Certainly denying the rights of people to speak when they want to is wrong, but is it equally wrong to force someone to speak up? It’s a bizarre question, to be sure, but one that seems to be cropping up over and over.

I’ve spoken before about China’s tempestuous relationship with free speech; or maybe I should call it an abusive relationship, since it regularly treads on the speech rights of its citizens. However, there’s something happening right now in China that is making me sit up and take notice:

A leading Chinese internet regulator has vowed to reduce anonymity online, calling for rules to require people to use their real names when buying a mobile phone or going online, according to a human rights group.

The move would have two major implications. The first is that the days of internet trolling and flaming would be pretty much done. You’re going to be a lot less likely to call someone a ‘fagtard fuckstick’ if they can find out who you really are. The second is a bit more chilling though, since the government would also have access to your personal information. Given China’s record for cracking down on dissent of any kind, and the stated policy that “indicate a growing uneasiness toward the multitude of opinions found online.” I’m not so sure this information should be available, even given the problems China is having with its own regulation.

But that’s China’s problem, right? Over here in North America we don’t have to worry about that kind of stuff! Well, that’s not exactly the case:

The maker of the hugely popular World of Warcraft video game has reversed a previous plan that would have required users of its game forums to post under their real names.

I don’t play WoW, but I do have friends who do, and I am familiar with the kinds of abuse that happen on internet sites. I’m also acutely aware that many of the users are young people, for whom that kind of abuse can be truly scarring. In an effort to civilize the forums, Activision/Blizzard announced it would bring in measures to remove anonymity from its forums. The backlash was immediate, with users raising concerns (some legitimate) that publishing that information would make people targets of abuse. Many female gamers use the anonymity to avoid being sexually harassed, and the removal of that layer of protection would likely dissuade them from participation. Ditto for members of minority groups (with them ‘ethnic-sounding’ furriner names). Activision/Blizzard pulled the plug, but something tells me the issue hasn’t gone away. And it’s not just me who thinks so:

Two-thirds of 895 technology experts and stakeholders surveyed about the future of the internet believe the millennial generation, born mainly in the 1980s and 1990s, will make online sharing a lifelong habit, suggests a Pew Research Center and Elon University study released Friday.

One needn’t look much further than Facebook and Twitter (or even FourSquare, which makes even my millennial eyebrows raise in concern) to realize that privacy as it was known previously is on the way out. One also needn’t look much further than those sites to realize that there is huge potential for abuse, with employers firing or refusing to hire people based on their Facebook exploits. Canada’s privacy commissioner has been going round after round with Facebook to get better privacy measures installed. How long before those are a memory, and our whole lives are online? Let’s hope that we have at least a little while longer:

The owner of XY Magazine and its associated website – which catered for young homosexual boys – filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. XY’s creditors have applied for the firm’s one remaining valuable asset: its database of one million users.

This is the privacy nightmare. Not the loss of a job because you posted a drunk picture of you riding a pig, but you getting assaulted by a pig over information that you were told would be kept anonymous. There are many people who are privately gay and who are not prepared to come out in public. Being forced out would be traumatic enough, but to have that information up for sale to whoever wanted it would be disastrous.

So it seems the balance is, at least for now, that privacy does more good than harm. We don’t yet live in a society with sufficient privacy protections that would allow people to be themselves online. Why is this a problem for me? Because the same protections that gay kids and Chinese dissidents and female gamers get are extended to race bigots, Holocaust deniers, and religious zealots. If we have a code of rights to protect privacy, then it also covers the privacy of people whose opinions we don’t like. The goal of free speech is to have ideas out in the open, not cowering behind a shield of anonymity. Activision/Blizzard recognized that, but had to reverse its decision. This seems to be another downside to living in a free society – even assholes are granted freedom.

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