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A licence to bully

Online anonymity is far from freedom of speech. It simply debases debate. Jonathan Myerson writes.

india Updated: Aug 28, 2012 22:28 IST

When Martin Luther triggered the Reformation by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a Wittenberg church, he didn't sign it GloomyGripe65. He put his name to the document. Centuries later, when his namesake publicly declared his support for the Memphis strikers, he didn't sign it HaveADream1963. If it was worth saying, it was worth putting your name to it.

Yet take a glance at any comment thread on a news site, YouTube or even on the UK government-recommended website Mumsnet, and you'll find discussion boards littered with gruesome and, crucially, anonymous mud-slinging.

This isn't about trolls (their viciousness is a symptom of something more serious) this is about people who would never class themselves as abusers or hecklers, let alone "nasty". And yet, liberated by user-name anonymity, ordinary citizens - work colleagues, parents, your mother - will type statements they would never dream of saying to the subject's face. They probably wouldn't even gossip it to friends in the pub - the friends would look away, shocked by this needless vitriol.

So who decided that pseudonymity is a crucial brick in the wall of free speech, on the web or elsewhere? Maybe user names once boasted a valid internet purpose. But any such justification is now subverted, and we are left with the queasy ethics of the untended playground, where the nastiest bully wins out simply because he knows he can.

When South Korea recently introduced a law demanding all online users identify themselves before posting, a Carnegie Mellon study of the effects showed that online participation did not drop in the long term but "uninhibited behaviours" did: "swear words and anti-normative expressions" were significantly reduced.

In spite of this, last week the law was overturned by a court on the grounds that it was violating freedom of speech. This was partly because some South Koreans switched to overseas-hosted forums where their identities could remain hidden, though the research has shown that this group of individuals was "more likely to be assertive or abusive". In spite of the court reversal, many observers believe South Korea is ahead of the curve in its desire to pin names to users, that it has recognised that this is a freedom too far.

What, most importantly, would be lost? What have you ever posted to which you are not willing to put your name? If user names had never been invented, would you have not still wanted to participate? How can any of us stand for the right to say something that we dare not own?

Because this isn't idle chatter lost in the air. The internet isn't written in pencil or even ink - it's carved in stone. Much of this character assassination remains visible forever - or certainly decades. Further, this abuse often squeezes out passionately argued commentary, and the absence of true debate debases and devalues the national dialogue. Without a name to stand behind it, free speech too easily slides into verbal delinquency. It has become too easy to be unkind, and we have lost something as a result.