Many people don't want the things they say online to be connected with their offline identities. They may be concerned about political or economic retribution, harassment, or even threats to their lives. Whistleblowers report news that companies and governments would prefer to suppress; human rights workers struggle against repressive governments; parents try to create a safe way for children to explore; victims of domestic violence attempt to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow.
Instead of using their true names to communicate, these people choose to speak using pseudonyms (assumed names) or anonymously (no name at all). For these individuals and the organizations that support them, secure anonymity is critical. It may literally save lives.
Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A frequently cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:
Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
The tradition of anonymous speech is older than the United States. Founders Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius " and "the Federal Farmer" spoke up in rebuttal. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized rights to speak anonymously derived from the First Amendment.
The right to anonymous speech is also protected well beyond the printed page. Thus in 2002 the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring proselytizers to register their true names with the Mayor's office before going door-to-door.
These long-standing rights to anonymity and the protections it affords are critically important for the Internet. As the Supreme Court has recognized the Internet offers a new and powerful democratic forum in which anyone can become a "pamphleteer" or "a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been involved in the fight to protect the rights of anonymous speakers online. As one court observed in a case handled by EFF along with the ACLU of Washington, "[T]he free exchange of ideas on the Internet is driven in large part by the ability of Internet users to communicate anonymously."
We've challenged many efforts to impede anonymous communication both in the courts or the legislatures. We also previously provided financial support to the developers of Tor, an anonymous Internet communications system. By combining legal and policy work with technical tools we hope to maintain the Internet's ability to serve as a vehicle for free expression.
EFF Related Content: Anonymity
- Since last year, Indian citizens have been required to submit their photograph, iris and fingerprint scans in order to access legal entitlements, benefits, compensation, scholarships, and even nutrition programs. Submitting biometric information is needed for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers, the training and aid of disabled people, and...
- Online platforms must be allowed to assert their anonymous users’ First Amendment rights in court, EFF argued in a brief filed Monday in a California appellate court. The case, Yelp v. Superior Court , concerns whether online review website Yelp has the legal right to appear in court and make...
- The US government has backed down from its attempt to unmask an anonymous Twitter account that criticized the Trump administration, a victory for free speech advocates. Jamie Lee Williams, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said: “The fact that they withdrew the summons doesn’t necessarily show that the...
- Twitter dropped its legal fight with the federal government Friday after U.S. Customs and Border Protection reversed course and withdrew a summons seeking to unmask the users of an account critical of the Trump administration. " Once there’s push back and legal rights are asserted, then those things typically go...