Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dennis Prager on Killing Internet Freedom

I've obviously been a pretty emphatic advocate of the need for civility on internet blogs, message boards, and e-mails to commentators. But Dennis Prager's column today strikes me as one of the best ways to attack the free speech triumph that is the internet. Money quote:

"There is not one good reason for any website, left or right, or non-political, to allow people to avoid identifying themselves. Anyone interested in serious political discourse, or in merely lowering the hate levels in our country, should welcome the banning of anonymous postings."

To sum up, Prager believes that the anonymity provided by the internet is responsible for all sorts of ad hominems and vitriol, making the comparison with a relative lack of ad hominems and vitriol in the letters to the editor section of the newspaper, where people must identify themselves with name and hometown. As a result, Prager advocates requirements that individual commenters and bloggers give their name and hometown for any comments they wish to post.

There are a number of huge flaws with this idea, though:
1. Incivility on the internet is a nuisance, but not a threat; if you are seriously offended and hurt by something said by an anonymous commenter or blogger, then you need to grow a thicker skin. Not to say you can't be seriously annoyed by this sort of thing- just that we're not usually talking about serious threats to someone's reputation or physical well-being. An ad hominem by an anonymous poster is hardly going to hurt someone's reputation, and it really shouldn't hurt their feelings. The primary effect of the ad hominem nuisance is often that it prevents the anonymous poster's legitimate arguments from ever getting a fair hearing from the "victim."

2. The anonymity provided by the internet, whether on comments or in the actual blogosphere, is one of the most essential elements of the internet. If you are able to maintain some degree of anonymity, you are much more free to advocate unpopular positions, or even just popular positions on divisive issues. This is a particularly important element point now that google gives employers and prospective employers virtually unlimited access to everything that exists on the internet- access that employers increasingly use to research job candidates. For instance, think of the effect of non-anonymity on an outright communist's willingness to engage in internet discussion if the communist is aware that his current or future employer will be able to tie him to his statements.

3. How would one enforce this anonymity policy? Would one be able to just put down any old name and town- in which case anonymity is essentially unaffected? Or would a poster's hometown have to be closely correlated to his IP address? Or would we have to have software that is tied to the name of the account owner (creating massive privacy concerns)?

4. Who says that tying one's name to a comment actually has an effect on civility? I've seen plenty of letter to the editor over the years that could be characterized as "ad hominems" or invective-filled. Moreover, how many letters to the editor containing ad hominems and invective don't get published at all because they simply contain nothing worth publishing (which is usually the case with any ad hominem)?

5. Regardless of anonymity, most sites already have editorial control over comments posted on their websites. When a comment shows up that is particularly lacking in substance and filled with ad hominems or invective, the site's owner has the ability to delete the comment- and frequently does.

Now, I have no problem with individual sites choosing whatever commenting policy they wish. Indeed, there are perfectly legitimate reasons why a site would wish to prevent anonymous comments. But there are also plenty of legitimate reasons why permitting anonymous comments is worthwhile. To ignore these reasons is just silly. An even scarier type of anonymity ban, though, would be on an abolition of anonymous blogging in general (rather than just commenting). Currently, the blogosphere is as close to a pure meritocracy as has ever existed- good blogs get the most traffic; bad blogs wither and die. What makes many blogs good blogs, though, is their willingness to express unique ideas; an anonymity ban would have a chilling effect on any blogger expressing unique ideas where the blogger's ideas aren't well-known to begin with (and where the blogger isn't already pursuing a career path surrounded by like-minded people).