The Importance Of Protecting Anonymous Speech Online

from the it-may-not-be-pretty,-but-it's-worth-it dept

There tends to be this feeling of entitlement that anything someone doesn’t like must somehow be “illegal.” This is especially true when it comes to anonymous speech — even more so when it’s anonymous speech that’s “critical” of someone or some organization. The EFF is discussing an interesting case where the publisher of a newspaper is trying to uncover the identity of an anonymous blogger who runs a blog that has had several critical posts of the newspaper’s strategy to stop its employees from unionizing. According to the EFF report, this publisher has taken a hard line against any critic, suing two newspapers for their coverage and threatening suits against people for daring to put pro-union signs in their windows. In particular, the publisher is apparently annoyed that an anonymous third party commented on the anonymous blog, suggesting “acts of cybersabotage” against the newspaper’s management. The blogger quickly removed this comment, but the publisher claims that the comment itself influenced the union vote (the employees voted to unionize) and has sent a subpoena requesting information about the anonymous blogger. From the description, this sounds very much like an attempt at intimidation. The blogger in question wasn’t even the person who put up the comment, and the comment itself was removed. Trying to figure out the identity serves no reasonable purpose. In fact, as the EFF points out, the only place that information might have been useful was at the hearing to see whether the comment unfairly influenced the union vote — and that hearing already passed without the issue being mentioned. Anonymity can be messy, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be protected.

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Comments on “The Importance Of Protecting Anonymous Speech Online”

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Avatar28 says:

sounds like a union is needed

If the paper is going to treat its employees and others like that, I think the people working there probably need a union to stand up to them. Regardless, I fail to see how influencing the vote should be illegal anyways. And threatening to sue people for putting up pro-union signs? I think I’d put one up and tell them to bring it on. Or, better, round up some people to protest outside the place. Make sure I’m on public ground and then let them try.

This newspaper is in California where, last I checked, they have a rather useful anti-SLAPP law on the books. SLAPP = Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Basically what these guys are doing, filing lawsuits against someone for speaking out against the company. I think someone should, in turn, countersue under that law.

Urza9814 says:

Anonymnity isn't pretected?

In case you haven’t noticed, the first ammendment protects free speech. And while I realize you can’t be anonymous in real life, and the founding fathers never knew about the internet, free speech doesn’t exist without anonymnity. No matter what you say, someone will judge you for it. You will be punished for it. The only way to freely speak your mind is to do it anonymously.

Steve says:

Anonymous Speech has been around for a long time

During the eighteenth century, it was common for writers and journalists to use pseudonyms, or false names, when they created newspaper articles and letters to the editor. Franklin used this convention extensively throughout his life, sometimes to express an idea that might have been considered slanderous or even illegal by the authorities; other times to present two sides of an issue, much like the point-counterpoint style of journalism used today.

Silence Dogood — Mrs. Dogood was Franklin’s first pseudonym, created when he was sixteen years old and serving as a printer’s apprentice to his brother James. Silence Dogood was a middle-aged widow who looked at the world with a humorous and satiric eye. Her letters dealt with a range of topics from love and courtship to the state of education in Massachusetts. In all, fifteen Silence Dogood letters were published in James Franklin’s New England Courant.

Caelia Shortface and Martha Careful — Franklin wrote mocking letters from these two “ladies” to get even with his former employer Samuel Keimer for stealing some of Franklin’s publishing ideas. The letters were printed in the American Weekly Mercury, a newspaper published by Keimer’s competitor Andrew Bradford.

Busy Body — Franklin’s Busy Body letters were also published in the American Weekly Mercury. Miss Body’s letters were filled with humorous looks at the battle of the sexes and barbs at local businessmen. Gossip was Busy Body’s stock in trade.

Anthony Afterwit — Franklin created this “gentleman” to provide a humorous look at matrimony and married life from a male point of view. Mr. Afterwit appeared in Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette.

Alice Addertongue — Miss Addertongue was a thirty-five year old gossip who provided Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette with stories of scandal about prominent members of society.

Richard Saunders — Of all of Franklin’s noms de plume, Mr. Saunders became the best known. Richard Saunders was the “Richard” of Poor Richard’s Almanack. First published late in 1732, Poor Richard’s Almanack is probably Franklin’s best-known publication. Richard Saunders’ humorous sayings and advice filled the pages of the almanac’s twenty-six editions.

Polly Baker — Franklin used Polly Baker to examine the negative way women were treated in the eyes of the law. Ms. Baker had several illegitimate children and was punished for her “crime,” while the fathers, many of whom were prominent citizens, suffered no such hardship.

Benevolus — While in England, Franklin penned a number of letters under the name of Benevolus. These letters tried to answer some of the negative assertions made by the British press about the American colonists. These letters were published in London newspapers and journals.

Shun says:

Libel, Slander, and Anonymity

I agree that issues of libel and slander muddy the anonymity/identity waters. Here is a silly parable.

In today’s times, we have the ability to anonymously communicate, using ssh tunnels,, or pgp and it’s open source equivalents. Not too many people use them. That is not the point. The point is, the technology is there.

Back in the early part of the twentieth century, mass production of automobiles became possible. Ford and a few of his rivals started producing cars like the Dickens. Soon, some enterprising young criminals decided it was better to rob banks and get away on cars, as opposed to the more traditional modes of transport (foot, horse, rail).

Now, did the people and government of that era raise a hue and cry to have the automobile outlawed? Did everyone and their mother decry the evils of personal transportation? Remember, this was before the SUV and global warming.

No, people dealt with the problem of bank robbery by making banks harder to rob, not making it more difficult for ordinary people to drive. (Also, cops got into the game by souping up their engines, a not insignificant outcome.)

A similar situation exists today. Some folks think it would be better to strip ourselves of our ability to anonymously communicate, to expose “bad actors”. The problem is that we will always have bad actors in the system, and dilluting our own rights will have no effect on them. Just ask political dissidents in Burma or China whether stripping them of their anonymity is a viable tradeoff for not having to endure the slings and arrows of their ridiculous critics.

As long as we value our freedoms, we will have to live with some of the problems those freedoms bring. What would you rather have, a couple of new hecklers every week or a prison/state/surveillance society?

I think we can afford to compensate some of our members for damaged reputation/lost income from an anonymous slanderer. We cannot afford to forfeit all of our freedoms for a promise that these folks will be caught and prosecuted. Remember : “I work for the government; I’m here to help you.”

Lay Lawyer says:

Free Speech, anonymity

The 1st Amendment guarentees your right to free speech, but does not shield you from the consequences of that free speech – otherwise, you couldn’t be fired for calling your boss an “idiot” in a public forum. Lots of people seem to misunderstand that – you can say what you want to in a public forum without fear of being arrested for it (with a few notable exceptions the supreme court has ruled on, such as the cliched “yelling FIRE in a crowded theater”). However, you aren’t insulated from how other people treat you FOR your “free speech” – other than your normal civil protections from criminal acts like assault and whatnot.

There is no guarentee of anonymity in the Constitution. Yet. We do have a very well outlined procedure for amending the document if its decided that such “anonymity protection” is a good thing(tm) to have. Personally, I’d probably put a “right to privacy” amendment in there ahead of a “right to anonymity”, but that’s just my opinion.

If you do want to slam somebody in a public forum, there’s a couple of things that will help to insulate you from legal action:
1) it’s always better to slam a company than an individual. “Microsoft sucks” is always safer than “Bill Gates sucks”.

2) it’s always better to couch your slam in the form of an opinion. Opinions are not actionable because they are not taken as statements of fact. Best to remove all possible ambiguity by saying “In my opinion” before casting aspersions on somebody’s ancestry.

3) When all else fails, liberal use of sarcasm and hyperbole can make a case for you that you’re indulging in Satire/Parody, which actually IS a class of free speech protected from a number of civil statutes – in particular, it’s a great way to sidestep copyright law. “I was making fun of it, I wasn’t ripping it off”.

4) I may not know what the hell I’m talking about here. 😀

another says:

Techdirt Pot calling the kettle black?

When there was a controversy on Techdirt, the masters of this website tracked the IP address of an anonymous poster that was making claims. Techdirt posted that the comments were in fact coming from a company representative involved in the controversy. Pot, meet the kettle. You can’t talk out of both sides of your website.

Stu says:

“Pot, meet the kettle. You can’t talk out of both sides of your website.”

There is no “right” to anonymity, although it’s good to be anonymous at times. You try to be anonymous, and take your chances.

Isn’t it interesting how few companies and individuals put themselves at risk of exposure without researching that risk beforehand?

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