Web Anonymity – The Darker Picture!

With more and more websites allowing user comments and cloaking the users’ identities with the excuse of catering to the “free speech online” concept, malicious gossip is freely posted by negative elements who are secure in the knowledge that they are safe in their anonymity.

Previously, there used to be a few sites that allowed user comments, such as AOL and Yahoo! The advantage they had was that, when someone subpoenaed the website host, they could get the person’s home address and full name. But that is not the case anymore. Now, most of these websites that allow comments either wipe them out or do not store the details necessary to track down visitors to their sites.

Several users suffer due to this, as malicious posts about them do the rounds which give their full name, attacking their integrity in several ways, such as calling them anorexic, a homosexual, or that they have sexual diseases etc. These things just cannot be shrugged off as this has an enormous effect on the reputation and the mental state of being of the person concerned.

There are very few legal means to compel websites to police message boards. The Communications Decency Act of 1996, has protected these websites from suits concerning user comments for many years now. Their stand is that such sites are similar to public parks and are not considered publications.

According to some lawmakers, these protections are too broad and they are now asking for changes in the law in order to address this growing problem.

The growing dangers of free online speech have been connected to several tragic incidents, one of which is the pitiable case of the 13-year-old who committed suicide in November of last year. This young teen is said to have hanged herself a day after she has been insulted in some way, by a person online, who she made friendship with on MySpace, believing him to be a 16-year-old. Later, investigations revealed that no such youngster existed and it was all the handiwork of a neighbor she had always known but never suspected.

Several students from Princeton are bent on dealing with the situation, using a tactic of shutting down the anonymous gossip online by attacking the core of the business model of such sites. They are organizing huge boycotts of the famous sites online to cut off traffic and in turn the ad revenue, which is what these sites thrive on. Behind this movement is a 20-year-old student from Princeton, who created a new website that asks students to pledge that they will not visit anonymous gossip sites and to stand behind their online statements with all integrity. He says, “This is about changing the way our generation and our culture look at the way we communicate with one another.”

Most of these websites that allow anonymous chats do not charge any fee and their main source of revenue is advertising.

This is being looked at by analysts as a positive move in the direction of controlling the menace of web anonymity.

On the other side of the fence, there are some legal experts and others who believe that unfettered, anonymous speech is essential on the internet. They say that it is not just the principle; it’s the business. Websites such as Amazon.com, MySpace, and YouTube depend on user participation to generate content. Screening or even monitoring users could prove to be impossible and costly for some of these sites. They believe the burden cannot be shifted to website operators and internet is all about free speech.

This debate will continue as long as the unscrupulous elements look at internet as their way of issuing a death sentence (which is what it is) to people they may have personal enmity with or to people they do not know, just for the fun of it.

The general consensus is certainly that websites should provide a way to remove malicious defamatory content in order to protect the rights of their users.

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