This House believes that the right to anonymous posting on the internet should be protected by law

Anonymous posting on the internet is where someone posts something on an online bulletin board, internet forum, blog or comment and is allowed and able to remain anonymous – either because he or she doesn’t have to give up any identifiable information (like a pseudonym or email) or because he or she is allowed to give a non-identifiable pseudonym.

There are different ways in which someone can remain anonymous or can be identified online. To understand these different ways, it’s important to understand something of the technical process of communicating online. From the hardware perspective, the internet is a ‘network of networks’: a vast network of large and small computers connected to each other via cable and wireless signals. The network is ever changing: whenever someone goes online, their computer connects to the network. When they turn off their computer, it’s disconnected from the network. Whenever someone visits a website, the user’s computer connects via the network to the computer where the website is hosted and downloads the website to the local computer. The user could then log in to the website or just read it.

There are several steps in this process which can help in identifying an internet user. The first step is the assignment of an ‘IP address’. As soon as a computer connects to the internet, it gets an IP address. This address is unique to the local computer, which means that with the IP address someone else can trace from which computer someone was accessing or sending certain information. If that computer is your home computer, than tracing the IP address is a pretty certain way of discovering where exactly you live. 

Identifying an IP-address is not the same as identifying the sender of information. There are several ways in which someone can remain anonymous as the sender of information. For example, people can hire computers (usually from commercial firms) to host information from. The host-computer (called ‘server’) then resides somewhere else – the only way to then trace hosted information to a sender is via a legal paper trail, for example by requiring legal identification for everyone who wants to hire server space.

But even then not all information is necessarily traceable to the sender of information. Take email, for example: email is sent through a specific software protocol called SMTP. Whenever you send an email from within an email program (not a browser), it typically leaves traces in several different places on the way, allowing the sender to be identified.

Apart from identifying the sender, the route between sender and receiver of information provides another step through which an internet user can or can’t be identified. Whenever you access a webpage, the server (the computer where the webpage ‘lives’) sends the webpage to your computer in packets. These packets get assembled back to the complete webpage by your computer. Each packet can take a different route: the packets ‘know’ your IP address so they know where they are heading, but they can take different routes to enable them to take the shortest route with the least congestion. This process of ‘routing’ can be anonymised: by placing an intermediary anonymising server on the route between sender and receiver through which packets are forced to travel and from which identifying information can then be stripped.

A final way of identifying someone online is by requiring people to identify themselves whenever they log into a website. An example is Facebook: Facebook requires users to provide ‘real names’. Other sites allow people to comment anonymously.

These different technical means of identifying someone online mean that there have been different proposals of curbing internet anonymity. We will identify the different proposals when relevant in the arguments. 

Title 
Internet anonymity enables citizens to exercise their right to free speech
Point 

Citizens have a right to speak their mind without government interference – which is why in the offline world people also have a right to speak anonymously.[1] Internet anonymity guarantees that people can actually exercise their right to free speech: anonymity takes away the fear of potential political consequences.

The reason why governments are cracking down on internet anonymity is exactly this: they don’t like being criticized. For example, China recently introduced a bill requiring ‘real name registration’ of every Chinese internet user, thus hampering free communication and the airing of political dissident opinions.[2]

Conversely, internet anonymity has helped in the Arab Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia: people used anonymising software like TOR to come online and communicate, organize and criticize freely without fear of political repercussions.[3]

[1] Electronic Frontier Foundation, ‘Anonymity’. URL: https://www.eff.org/issues/anonymity

[2] Human Rights Watch, ‘China: Renewed Restrictions Send Online Chill’, January 4, 2013. URL: http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/04/china-renewed-restrictions-send-online-chill

[3] University for Peace, ‘Tor, Anonymity, and the Arab Spring: An Interview with Jacob Appelbaum’, August 1, 2011. URL: http://www.monitor.upeace.org/innerpg.cfm?id_article=816

Counterpoint 

Internet anonymity isn’t necessary to exercise citizen’s right to free speech

Even when we accept the theoretical principle of free speech, the past years have shown that internet anonymity is not necessary for citizens to exercise their right to free speech.

First, look at ‘access to the internet’ as a prime factor, regardless of whether it’s anonymous or not: In the case of the Arab spring, the causes of the unrest were increased oppression and a declining economic climate.[1]  Internet access wasn’t that much of an enabling factor in the Arab Spring: the countries that saw the highest mobilization of citizens (Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen) actually rank lowest in internet penetration of all Arab countries.[2]

Secondly, let’s look at anonymity on the internet, provided that access is given: Again, the Arab Spring shows that anonymity isn’t a decisive factor at all. In Egypt and Tunisia, Facebook was a main vehicle to organize protests,[3] yet Facebook doesn’t allow anonymity  – up to the extent that Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks called Facebook  ‘the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented’.[4] All this shows that internet anonymity isn’t as crucial a factor in fostering political dissidence as its proponents like to believe.

[1] Foreign Common Wealth Office, ‘The Causes of the Arab Spring’. URL: http://fcohrdreport.readandcomment.com/the-arab-spring/the-causes-of-the-arab-spring/

[2] Yale Global, ‘Three Myths About the Arab Uprisings’, July 24, 2012. URL: http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/three-myths-about-arab-uprisings

[3] The National, ‘Facebook and Twitter key to Arab Spring uprisings: report’, June 6, 2011 URL: http://www.thenational.ae/news/uae-news/facebook-and-twitter-key-to-arab-spring-uprisings-report#ixzz2NWVMS6TQ

[4] Cnet, ‘Assange: Facebook is an appaling spy machine’, May 3, 2011. URL: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13506_3-20059247-17.html#ixzz1LNaW3qw2

Title 
Internet anonymity allows people to speak the truth without fearing harm to their careers
Point 

People might do things online that can have negative consequences for their career. Think of ‘whistleblowers’ for example: whistleblowers are employees of a company that have direct and first-hand knowledge of their employer doing something illegal or immoral. If they speak out about it publicly, they might lose their job and therefore their sole source of income. Allowing them to speak out anonymously enables them to invite public scrutiny to their employer without fear of getting fired.[1]

Or think of employers using social media in the job application process. Some people during adolescence (or in their student years) might ‘misbehave’ – where misbehaving can be something as relatively harmless as drinking a bit too much, then doing something silly and then having pictures of that end up on Facebook. Because Facebook doesn’t allow anonymity, this means future employers can easily trace someone’s adolescent shenanigans to a person they are currently considering to hire. Around 37% of companies admit to doing this and take what they find into account when hiring.[2]

[1] IEEE Spectrum, ‘The Whistle Blower’s Dilemma’, april 2004. URL: http://spectrum.ieee.org/at-work/tech-careers/the-whistleblowers-dilemma

[2] Webpronews, ‘Employers Are Still Patrolling Facebook, And Your Drunk Stripper Photos Are Why You’re Not Hired’. April 18, 2012. URL: http://www.webpronews.com/employers-are-still-patrolling-facebook-and-your-drunk-stripper-photos-are-why-youre-not-hired-2012-04

Counterpoint 

People have enough means to protect their careers

Whistleblowers shouldn’t be protected by internet anonymity, but by legal measures, making it illegal to fire people for whistleblowing, and by building a corporate culture that actually ‘prevents whistleblowing by encouraging it’.[1]

In the case of job applications, social networking sites like Facebook might not be anonymous, but lack of anonymity isn’t equal to full publicity. This is why, after criticism, Facebook has increased the visibility and usability of its privacy controls, which means that users themselves have more control over who is allowed to view their pictures and who is allowed to read their newsfeed.[2] If an employer still discovers someone’s fraternity party pictures with just a simple google search, then really the ‘victims’ themselves should take part of the blame by deciding to publish these pictures for all to themselves.

Moreover, when employers take a peek at someone’s Facebook-profile, they might be looking for something different contrary to expectations: a lot of party pictures may be associated with the personality trait of extroversion, which many employers actually consider a good not a bad thing.[3]

[1] Lilanthi Ravishankar, ‘Encouraging Internal Whistleblowing in Organizations’, 2003. Published online for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, URL: http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/submitted/whistleblowing.html

[2] The Guardian, ‘Facebook to improve privacy controls over public visibility’, December 12, 2012. URL:   http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/dec/12/facebook-improve-privacy-controls-pictures-public

[3] Forbes, ‘What employers are thinking when they look at your profile page’, June 3, 2012. URL: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/03/06/what-employers-are-thinking-when-they-look-at-your-facebook-page/

Title 
Internet anonymity allows people to experiment and construct with new social identities
Point 

People can use the internet to experiment with and construct new identities. Think for example of people who don’t have a heteronormative lifestyle (where heterosexuality is considered the norm/default lifestyle): in their own communities they could be condemned, despised and even prosecuted, but because of internet anonymity, they can safely join an online community without fear of social repercussions.[1]

Or think of people who through certain life-experiences needed to invent a new identity, for example someone who was addicted to drugs but now has come clean and is ready to build a new life – with an ‘authentic’ profile, this person will continuously be confronted with his or her previous identity.[2]

One solution would then be to require social networking sites like Facebook to drop the ‘real-name requirement’, which is something that the regional German data protection agency ULD has been arguing for in court.[3]

[1] TechPresident, ‘In the Middle East, Marginalized LGBT Youth Find Supportive Communities Online’, September 6, 2012. URL: http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/22823/middle-east-marginalized-lgbt-youth-find-supportive-communities-online

[2] The Guardian, ‘Online identity: is authenticity or anonymity more important?’, URL: http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2012/apr/19/online-identity-authenticity-anonymity

[3] The Verge, ‘Facebook wins legal battle to force Europeans to use real names online’, February 15, 2013. URL: http://www.theverge.com/2013/2/15/3991458/german-court-rules-in-facebooks-favor-europeans-must-use-real-names

Counterpoint 

Internet anonymity can actually make online non-heteronormative communities less safe

Internet anonymity allows people to ‘catfish’: to create a completely different online identity with the specific purpose of engaging in emotional/romantic relationships. In the case of non-heteronormative identities, a malicious ‘catfisher’ could construct an identity to lure someone into a trap.[1]

But even without malicious intent, catfishing can have negative effects on non-heteronormative communities. Take the example of the ‘Gay Girl from Damascus’, a blog written by a male student from the University of Edinburgh pretending to be a lesbian girl called Amina Arraf in Syria: by faking he inadvertently reaffirmed a heteronormative pattern that marginalized identities can’t speak for themselves.[2] Moreover, some marginalized identities might see the chance to pretend to be heteronormative: the MTV show ‘Catfish’ sometimes shows gay men or women pretending to be of the other sex, to be able to maintain a fake, heteronormative relationship. Obviously, they do this because for them this feels like the only way to reach out and connect – but it nonetheless is a fake identity, and the backlash after they’re found out doesn’t help the public perception of non-heteronormative communities at all.[3]

[1] Real Clear Politics, ‘The Problem with Online Anonymity’, March 13, 2012. URL: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2012/03/13/the_real_problem_with_online_anonymity_113457.html

[2] NPR. ‘White privilege and ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’, June 15, 2011. URL: http://www.npr.org/2011/06/15/137202339/white-privilege-and-the-gay-girl-in-damascus

[3] Daily Mail, ‘'Catfishing:' The phenomenon of Internet scammers who fabricate online identities and entire social circles to trick people into romantic relationships’, January 17, 2013. URL:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2264053/Catfishing-The-phenomenon-Internet-scammers-fabricate-online-identities-entire-social-circles-trick-people-romantic-relationships.html#ixzz2OgXjJ8Cf

Title 
Internet anonymity allows internet users to engage in illegal activities
Point 

The internet is being used for illegal activities. Examples of these are trading and trafficking in child pornography, drug trading and planning and coordinating terrorist activities.[1] Anonymity makes it easier for these criminals as they can engage in their activities with less fear of being caught.[2]

By regulating internet anonymity, we can combat illegal activities better, because a key resource for criminals has been diminished. This is exactly why Eugene Kaspersky, founder of antivirus firm Kasperksy Labs, called for an ‘internet passport’ for every internet user, allowing everyone to be identified as persons.[3]

[1] UNODC, Use of the Internet for Terrorist Purposes, 2012. PDF can be downloaded here: http://www.unodc.org/documents/frontpage/Use_of_Internet_for_Terrorist_Purposes.pdf

[2] Interpol, ‘Cybercrime’. URL: http://www.interpol.int/Crime-areas/Cybercrime/Cybercrime

UNICRI, ‘Terrorism and the internet’. URL: http://www.unicri.it/special_topics/cyber_threats/cyber_crime/explanations/terrorism/ 2013

[3] Zdnet,’Microsoft OneCare was good enough’, October 16, 2009. URL: http://www.zdnet.com/microsoft-onecare-was-good-enough-2062058697/

Counterpoint 

Banning internet anonymity doesn’t decrease illegal activities

Full traceability across the entire internet is difficult to implement: it would require a centralized worldwide agency certifying who has access to the internet – we don’t even have this for physical passports. But even if activities would be traceable to an IP-address, it doesn’t stop online illegal activities: criminals can remain anonymous by setting up anonymity servers, which allows them to rout their information through anonymous servers, even when their IP-addresses are known.[1] Even worse, malicious hackers can even recruit other people’s computers into engaging in illegal activities, for example in recruiting innocent people’s computers for collecting and distributing child pornography.[2]

[1] Bruce Schneier, ‘Schneier on security. Anonymity and the internet’, blogpost February 3, 2010. URL: http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2010/02/anonymity_and_t_3.html

[2] Huffington Post, ‘Internet Virus Frames Users for Child Porn’, September 11, 2009. URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/09/internet-virus-frames-use_n_350426.html

Title 
Internet anonymity leads to spam
Point 

Internet anonymity is a boon for spammers: even though spamming (sending unsolicited mass-emails) is illegal in many countries, the ability to send emails anonymously, either through altering the ‘sent-from’ address in the email or by opening and immediately closing an email address, enables spammers to keep on spamming.[1] Even if spam-fighters do find an email address and domain name from which spam is sent, then privacy protections still make it almost impossible to find out who exactly owns the domain name.[2] By restricting email traffic so that it can only be sent through official email-servers, we can ensure traceability of email senders and thereby increase the likelihood of catching spammers – which is what South-Korea, the world’s second largest generator of spam emails, recently proposed under the ‘Block 25’ proposal.[3]

[1] Spam Reader, ‘Why is it so difficult to catch a spammer?’, March 6, 2013. URL: http://www.spam-reader.com/articles/why-difficult-catch-spammer.shtml

[2] Spam Resource, ‘Is Online Anonymity a Bad Thing?’, March 2, 2010. URL: http://www.spamresource.com/2010/03/is-online-anonymity-bad-thing.html

[3] BBC News, ‘Email spam 'Block 25' crackdown readied in South Korea’, 14 november 2011. URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15720599

Counterpoint 

Regulating the internet doesn’t stop spamming

Restricting internet traffic by blocking ports doesn’t reduce spam at all: spam networks will be able to find another means of sending mass-emails within hours, if not seconds.[1]

But there’s another consequence of regulating internet traffic this way: it makes internet traffic and email slower and more cumbersome, hampering small businesses and companies working mostly through online channels. It thus hinders the smooth functioning of the economy and hampers innovation.[2]

[1] Zdnet, ‘South Korea to block port 25 as anti-spam countermeasure’, November 15, 2011. URL: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/security/south-korea-to-block-port-25-as-anti-spam-countermeasure/9789

[2] BBC News, ‘Email spam 'Block 25' crackdown readied in South Korea’, 14 november 2011. URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15720599

Title 
Internet anonymity increases cyberbullying and trolling
Point 

In normal social life, people restrain themselves in what they say to others. When anonymously online, people behave differently: whatever they say and do can be said and done without consequence, because it isn’t traceable to them as persons, or, as comic artist John Gabriel is often paraphrased 'Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Idiot’.[1]

The consequences of this behaviour are ugly or downright harmful. Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMPORGs) like World of Warcraft face a constant atmosphere of verbal abuse created by their players.  And there’s worse than simple trolling like this: anonymity increases the effects bullying. For example, where schoolchildren originally were bullied in schools by bullies whose faces they knew, with online anonymity the bullying goes on anonymously online and invades every aspect of the victims’ lives – aggravating their suffering so much that in some cases they actually commit suicide, as for example did Canadian teenager Amanda Todd.[2]

That’s why organizations maintaining online communities, whether they be social networking sites like Facebook, MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and newspaper sites like The Guardian should (legally) be required to (publicly) verify the person behind an account or take it offline if it remains anonymous, as New York senators recently proposed.[3]

[1] The Independent, ‘Rhodri Marsden: Online anonymity lets us behave badly’, July 14, 2010. URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/rhodri-marsden-online-anonymity-lets-us-behave-badly-2025758.html

[2] Huffington Post, ‘Amanda Todd: Bullied Canadian Teen Commits Suicide After Prolonged Battle Online And In School’, October 11, 2012. URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/11/amanda-todd-suicide-bullying_n_1959909.html

[3] Wired, ‘New York Legislation Would Ban Anonymous Online Speech’, May 22, 2012. URL: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/05/anonymous-online-speech-ban/

Counterpoint 

Banning internet anonymity wouldn’t decrease cyberbullying and trolling

Cyberbullying is bad, but internet anonymity isn’t the cause of rising suicides - cyberbullying is a circumstantial factor that triggers deeper, underlying problems in its victims.[1] Actually, banning internet anonymity can increase cyberbullying: when World of Warcraft announced their intentions to ban anonymity, female gamers voiced concerns of being forced to reveal their gender to other players, thus generating unwanted attention.[2]

As to the problem of trolling causing discussions under newspaper-articles and forums to go ‘bad’: this isn’t necessarily the case. A mediating factor could be the exact system in place for placing comments: comment systems like Disqus allow people to comment anonymously but still be judged for the quality of their contribution to the discussion.[3] If organizations care about the quality of their online discussions, they will implement systems like this by themselves and wouldn’t need any government regulation.

[1] ScienceNew, ‘Cyberbullying Does Not 'Cause' Teen Suicide’, October 20, 2012. URL: http://www.science20.com/news_articles/cyberbullying_does_not_cause_teen_suicide-95444

[2] The Independent, ‘Rhodri Marsden: Online anonymity lets us behave badly’, July 14, 2010. URL: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/features/rhodri-marsden-online-anonymity-lets-us-behave-badly-2025758.html

[3] Silicon Valley Watcher, ‘Disqus: The Importance Of Trolls And Anonymity In Comments’, February 22, 2013. URL: http://www.siliconvalleywatcher.com/mt/archives/2013/02/disqus_the_impo.php

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