December 1, 2011 | By Eva Galperin and Jillian York

New York Times Has a Sunday Dialogue on Anonymity and Civility on the Internet

Two weeks ago, the New York Times published a letter to the editor from Christopher Wolf, who leads the Internet Task Force of the Anti-Defamation League, in which he suggested:

It is time to consider Facebook’s real-name policy as an Internet norm because online identification demonstrably leads to accountability and promotes civility.

People who are able to post anonymously (or pseudonymously) are far more likely to say awful things, sometimes with awful consequences, such as the suicides of cyberbullied young people. The abuse extends to hate-filled and inflammatory comments appended to the online versions of newspaper articles — comments that hijack legitimate discussions of current events and discourage people from participating.

The New York Times invited readers to pen replies to Wolf's letter. The paper published several excellent, on-point replies, but did not publish EFF's.  So, we decided to publish it here instead:

Opponents of online anonymity often repeat the platitude that “real name” identification promotes civility. While that may be true, it is often at the expense of free expression. Not only does anonymity enable dissidents in oppressive regimes, but it also helps the small-town kid experimenting with his sexuality or the abuse survivor starting a new life.

Internet intermediaries offer tools that allow users to maintain civility without sacrificing anonymity. On social networks, users can moderate offensive comments or block users who are harassing them. Newspapers can institute systems for flagging inappropriate comments.

Concerns about cyber-bullying and other online crimes shouldn’t be dismissed, but law enforcement already has tools to identify anonymous criminals.

Christopher Wolf makes many claims about the negative effects of anonymous speech, but the truth is that not one of them is backed up by research. We should not be willing to sacrifice free expression for the possibility of civility, especially not when there are more effective alternatives.

We are happy to see dialogue on this topic on the New York Times. Newspapers have been engaged in an ongoing struggle to manage commentary on their websites. This week, USA Today announced that they would require a Facebook login in order to comment on their stories, while the New York Times announced changes to their comment system that would allow "trusted commenters" who had a track record of good behavior to post immediately, without having their commenty reviewed by a moderator. We look forward to seeing how these experiments play out.


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