Internet anonymity boosts democracy, free speech

Lately, SF State has had its fair share of run-ins with free speech. Cry to God, a group of religious fanatics who came to campus a few weeks ago, raised questions of protected free speech versus protected hate speech.

Free speech issues in the public arena are nothing new, but what about free speech online? What happens when free speech takes an anonymous form, like SFSU Confessions, the recently popular anonymous Facebook page? The Internet enables all forms of free speech, and when anonymous, the results are extreme.

Every so often, we are reminded of the abuse of Internet anonymity: cases of ignorant trolls, harmful cyberbullies, and hateful propaganda. We’ve all heard of suicides by young Internet users, seen the obnoxious comments under blog posts and even witnessed riots in the Muslim world over an offensive YouTube video. These cases beg the questions: Why do we put up with anonymity? Why not reveal these users and keep them accountable?

The concerns raised by these examples are valid and anonymity certainly plays a role in enabling internet hate speech, but we at the Xpress see that Internet anonymity, on a greater scale, does much more good than bad. Internet anonymity has given an equal voice to all users. It spurs on dialogue without judgment of name, geographic location, physical look or age (unless a user chooses to reveal their identity). We do not accept a precedent of sacrificing Internet anonymity for these few hateful instances.

Creative, user-generated dialogue has flourished under the veil of anonymity. SFSU Confessions is a clear example of this, for better or for worse.

The anonymity of SFSU Confessions has granted users the freedom to say what they want without a filter. Unfortunately, likers of the page have figured out whom these (sometimes insulting or explicit) confessions are about, and exposed their identities and, in some cases, housing locations.

This is where Internet anonymity has the opportunity to protect instead of defame. The only way SFSU Confessions works is if all parties are kept anonymous — curator, confessors and those confessed about. Without anonymity, there would be no SFSU Confessions, which would severely hamper online dialogue among SF State students.

An equal, accessible and anonymous public forum has had positive implications on democracy and solidarity. Across the seas, Internet anonymity was a major player in the Arab Spring.

Social media provided a platform for the concerns of those suffering under corrupt and repressive governments. Anonymity allowed users to speak out freely, organize without fear of retribution and publicly engage with other like-minded individuals. In some cases where users were identified, they suffered harsh reprisals from their governments, only further stressing the importance of Internet anonymity.

It should be alarming to us that the biggest opponents of Internet anonymity are oppressive, censoring governments like China, North Korea, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia, according to The New American. This signals that an end to Internet anonymity could lead to the silencing of dissidence.

China imprisoned a citizen for criticizing the single-party rule of China’s government on an Internet forum, aided by personal information yielded by Yahoo. If Internet anonymity is abolished, cases like these will be far too common under authoritarian regimes. The Internet enables democracy, and therefore should be protected as free, anonymous speech.

The best way we can protect anonymity on the Internet is by not abusing it. Trolls are capable of completely derailing a civil conversation on a forum, using hyperbole and vitriol to distract users from the issue at hand.

Using personal information to identify people who post anonymously only serves to make people hesitant to post on pages like SFSU Confessions, which undermines the the whole idea of the page.

Harmful, hateful speech gives Internet anonymity a bad name, and reduces the public opinion of Internet anonymity to memorable, malevolent cases. In order to help the public reap the benefits of internet anonymity across the globe, we should use it sensibly close to home.

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