Online anonymity is once again under attack. This time, it comes from the New York state Senate floor, where a bill is aiming to cut down on cyberbullying, protect small businesses, and--naturally--protect politicians from anonymous attacks during campaign season.
This amendment would, were it approved (which it won't be, so don't worry), require New York-based websites to remove comments posted by anonymous users, unless said users agree to attach their names to said comments.
And this isn't some wishy-washy Google+ "real name" nonsense, either -- you can't just offer up a real-sounding name to attach to your comment and be done with it. According to the text of the bill, the anonymous poster must agree to attach his or her name to the post and "confirm that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate." Technically, that even makes my byline sketchy, since my legal name is just Sarah Purewal.
Websites would be required to place a contact number or email address "clearly visible" in any place where comments can be posted. And no, in case you're wondering -- the person who requests that an anonymous comment be taken down does not have to disclose their IP address, legal name, or home address.
The legislation is sponsored by Assemblyman Dean Murray (R - East Patchogue) and Senator Thomas O'Mara (R - Big Flats). Again, according to the sponsors, the act will help to cut down on cyberbullying, protect small businesses such as restaurants from unfounded, negative reviews, and, naturally, protect politicians from baseless, derogatory attacks during campaign time. I'm sure that last concern is only an afterthought.
Now, this is not to say that I condone online bullying or libelous comments. But cracking down on the premier form of free speech -- that is, anonymous speech -- is not exactly the way to combat either of these things. As Wired's David Kravets points out, how well would the anonymously-written Federalist Papers have worked out, had Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay been required to confirm their IP addresses, legal names, and home addresses?
While it's true that the Internet is rife with anonymous users who troll comment sections and forums and who get off scot-free, getting rid of anonymous commenting to combat cyberbullying is like getting rid of quick download speeds to prevent piracy. After all, most anonymous commenters aren't causing others great mental or physical distress, just like most Internet users who want a faster connection aren't illegally downloading movies.
It's interesting that the Internet seems to make people forget how the real world works. According to Senator O'Mara, this bill will "help lend some accountability to the Internet age." But, of course, what Senator O'Mara is forgetting, is that people aren't all that accountable in the real world, either -- there are plenty of ways to be "anonymous" offline, for example, by lying.
But if this legislation passes, lying…will be against the law.