Sunday, April 26, 2009

Should We Control Anonymous Propaganda?

After all, it's always good to consider the source, but how can you consider the source when the source is anonymous or assuming a different identity?

The unique characteristics of Internet communications present new challenges to the issue of anonymity, the "concealing of one's identity while communicating, thus enabling the expression of political ideas, participation in the government process, membership in political associations, and the practice of religious belief without fear of government intimidation or public retaliation."

The Internet offers individuals with very little money or political power the vehicle to potentially reach large audiences and make a real impact, thus leveling the playing field. Although the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment guarantee free speech, that does not protect individuals with unpopular opinions from retaliation (loss of job, anonymous threats, etc.). Anonymity is often the only protection in many cases.

As is the case with all personal freedoms, anonymity on the Internet is often used to inflict harm...for example, posting an individual's private information, spreading false or damaging statements, etc. However if whatever is spread causes harm, liability and monetary damages may be awarded.

Proving "harm" is another story. First you must hire an attorney to file for a subpoena to serve upon the ISP in order to reveal the identify of the "defamer", who then has the right to file a "motion to quash." The burden of proof is on the person defamed, so he or sher must present "prima facie" evidence that the accused did inflict harm. The inconvenience and cost can be prohibitive, leaving most of us at the mercy of anonymous evildoers lurking amongst us.

Then, there is the propaganda mill. It's bad enough when we can the "who" behind the information designed to mislead or persuade us, but when the propagandist conceals his identity, the impact could be that much greater. Wikipedia is one example where the "anonymous" go to propagandize. However, as in the case of Wikipedia, most *wikis track the editor's ip address, so, it' fairly simple to see that much of the so-called anonymous editing is coming from Congress, the CIA, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In addition, large corporations get in on the act: "Someone from Halliburton deleted key information from an entry on war crimes; someone from Diebold, an electronic-voting machine manufacturer, deleted sections of its entry about a lawsuit filed against it. Someone at Pepsi deleted information about health problems caused by the soft drink. Somebody at The New York Times deleted huge chunks of information from the entry on the Wall Street Journal." And of course, the CIA has been editing the entry on the Iraq war.

Fortunately, Wikiscanner and other similar tools allow us to search the millions of edits across the wiki spectrum so that we may consider the source. And, it's never been easier to do our own research for verification purposes.

The idea of government legislating against anonymous Internet posting, editing, etc. is unconstitutional and creates more problems than it solves. Enforcing it alone would be impossible and extraordinarily time consuming and costly. So, since we, the people have the tools to do our own research and check the sources of our information, anonymous propaganda is not all that troublesome . As for the other issues, it's the price we pay for living in a free society.

"Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . 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." -- 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission
The Changing Web and Copyright.

*In a nutshell, a wiki is a collection of collaborative Web pages that allow users to modify entries, thus, a wiki is constantly changing depending on who creates or revises the entries.

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