Does Anonymity Protect Free Speech ?

People are usually divided on the need or desire for anonymity online, many like me believe that privacy is a fundamental right of any individual online. There are others who feel it is better to enforce the culpability of our actions online especially as anonymity is often used by criminals and paedophiles to hide themselves and their crimes. There are of course pros and cons to both arguments, it is not in doubt that criminals will use anonymous surfing techniques to protect themselves online. However it is also a fact that all over the world completely innocent people are being spied on and monitored to an alarming extent.

There are of course extremes at both sides of the argument so sometimes it's more helpful to decide on your stance by looking at some of the 'middle of the road' situations that occur regarding online anonymity.

The Curious Case of the North Carolina Slum

Now I've never been to North Carolina, but I feel I have some affinity  with the place.  Many years ago my girlfriend of the time went there (to a place called Raleigh) and had such a brilliant time that when she returned she dumped me, so I'm presuming it's a fabulous fun place :( 

Anyway I digress,  in North Carolina, US there is a current case which perfectly illustrates the anonymity problem in my opinion - the case of "The Home in Henderson - Six". The case centers around a landlord called Thomas Hester Jr and some comments made on a website called Home in Henderson.

The comments were obviously derogatory about Mr Thomas Hester, centering mainly on some property that he owned and leased out.

Apparently many elderly residents were living in squalor in these properties which had been allegedly sublet without the knowledge of Mr Thomas Hester. Several blog posters commenting under pseudonyms such as 'fatboy', 'Point Keeper' and 'confused' insinuated that Mt Thomas Hester had a little more knowledge of the sub let agreement than he was admitting to.  I was going to post some pictures of the properties but they were pretty horrible to be  honest but you can find them in the link below.

As you can see from the picture, Mr Hester has now applied for a subpoena in order for the owner of the website(Jason Feingold) to reveal the identities of the posters on his website. It looks kinda silly to see all those silly blog nicknames listed as defendants but it is actually quite worrying.

This is the crux of the problem - many people spend most of their online time presuming that they are completely anonymous, they believe that they can assign themselves a moniker and then nobody will ever know their real identity. This is however completely untrue they can easily be identified with the cooperation of the right people, specifically the easiest ways to identity a poster would be through the owner of the web site although there are other methods.

In this case, Mr Feingold is attempting to fight the subpoena - he is obviously keen to protect the identities of the people who use and post on his website. One of the bloggers has identified himself, the rest have stayed quiet so far. The case basically depends on whether the comments made by the bloggers are deemed slanderous by a judge.

The main part of the so called libelous discussion seems to be in this thread here HomeinHenderson blog, but lets be honest you'll see similar threads on different subjects all over the internet. I'll leave you to make your own judgement on whether legal action was appropriate - but from me I say Kudos to the HiH team for trying to protect the anonymity of their users, it just looks like bullying to me.

Anyway they have a donation button for legal costs on their home page - Legal Fund - chuck them a couple of dollars if you can.

As in most countries, there is no real standard about this situation, when should the identities of posters on web sites be released and when should their privacy be protected. Consider though the effect of free speech on the internet if there was no expectation of privacy at all. Remember technically there is no privacy, if you post, comment or voice an opinion on a blog, forum or website it can be easily traced back to you. You may post under a pseudonym but that it is irrelevant unless you obscure your IP address, this is the number which links both your nickname to your real name and address.

It is unclear about what will happen in this situation but seems possible that the web site owner will be forced to reveal the identities of his users. People will certainly eventually be deterred from voicing any sort of opinion online as they discover that their anonymous comments can be traced back and used against them. Some may think that is a good thing, that individuals should be responsible for whatever they say on or offline, that the web is such an important part of all our lives that there should be no distinction.

Whatever your opinions on this issue, remember be wary about what  you do or say online - if you don't take steps to ensure your surfing is anonymous it can be traced back to you simply via your IP address.