Anonymity has a rich tradition and can be essential for some forms of online discourse
Yet it can be easily abused – should sites like DNA require identification for posting comments?
WE start, with a nod to Dickens, with a tale of two lawyers, both speaking about the contentious amendment to the Evidence Act 1950 that the Malaysian Government has bulldozed through.
The Government first said the law was formulated to bolster prosecution against online defamation and sedition – it later changed its tune to say it was to tackle terrorism and cybercrimes – by making it tougher for online commentators to hide behind anonymity.
[Further analysis of the wording in the legislation however suggests that it would actually encourage anonymity by making all parties up and down the online access supply chain legally liable and presumed guilty.]
In one forum discussion on the Evidence (Amendment) (No2) Act 2012, or Section 114A, Foong Cheng Leong, co-chair of Kuala Lumpur Bar Information Technology Committee, while acknowledging the mischief that anonymous commentators can cause, said that most Malaysians prefer to comment and engage anonymously.
“Clearly we all want to be anonymous online, in order to protect ourselves,” he said.
[Note: In the comments below, Foong Cheng Leong clarifies his position.]
I was one of the panelists in that discussion, which was moderated by Jacqueline Ann Surin, co-founder and the editor of The Nut Graph. We had worked in The Star together, and I just muttered to her, “Not me,” and she nodded, “Not me either.”
Sure, we old-school journalists may not have understood the concept of personal branding in today’s online world, but we’ve always known about the value of our bylines. A journalist’s byline is our mark – it tells you who we are and what we stand for. Why would we want to hide it behind a shield?
We trust ourselves to be able to be critical without being defamatory, to be able to call a spade a spade without resorting to name-calling, to get to the heart of the matter without the need to insult.
In all my online interactions – whether it is on tech or political sites, whether it is on forums dedicated to role-playing games or my beloved and oh-so-depressing Liverpool Football Club, on my Facebook and Twitter accounts – I use my real name. My thoughts and what I believe in are part of my identity; they make up who I am.
So I never needed to shield myself behind anonymity. Not that I can’t see its value either. Another lawyer at yet-another forum discussion on Section 114A, K. Shanmuga, Member of the Malaysian Bar, pointed out that there is a rich and respected tradition of anonymity in political discourse, dating back a few centuries.
Without going into details, much of British political satire depended on anonymity – or more accurately, pseudonymity, where an assumed name or pseudonym was used instead of the author’s real name. In literature, women had to use male pseudonyms to be taken seriously, let alone get published.
The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays promoting the ratification of the US Constitution, was published anonymously, but was actually written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay.
“Satirists such as Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope published anonymously, often for legal and political reasons,” Robert Folkenflik, emeritus professor of English at UC Irvine, writes in the Los Angeles Times.
“Anonymity protected Swift from arrest when a reward was offered for the author of his Drapier's Letters, pamphlets advising the Irish not to take copper half-pence from England. The novels of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett and Fanny Burney were all anonymous,” he adds.
Whistleblowers and inside sources require anonymity to protect themselves when they reveal information of public interest, especially in Malaysia, where the authorities prefer to shoot the messenger rather than prosecute the perpetrator.
So, granted, anonymity has its place in discourse. But it should never be taken as an excuse to be a jerk. In many cases, anonymous online commentators take it as their due, and end up only proving John Gabriel's "Greater Internet F***wad Theory," pardon the language [or the asterisks, rather].
Not just in Malaysia, but throughout the greater online world, there has been a growing movement against anonymity – especially when there is no need for it. And yes, you can criticize the Malaysian Government and some of its decisions without being seditious or defamatory, as Digital News Asia founder Karamjit Singh did when he described the proposed Budget 2013’s RM200 smartphone rebate as stupid.
Social media networks like Facebook and LinkedIn have helped prepare us for this. When you think about it, social media loses at least half its value you don’t use your real identity.
Indeed, Facebook marketing director Randi Zuckerberg believes that putting an end to anonymity online could help curb cyber bullying and harassment.
“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away,” she said during a panel discussion on social media hosted by Marie Claire magazine, The Huffington Post reports. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”
Google began cleaning up YouTube’s comments section by encouraging users to post their real names, taken from their Google+ account -- since Google requires the real name of someone signing up for a Google+ account, PCWorld reported.
Google’s former chief executive officer and current executive chairman Eric Schmidt has gone on record to describe online anonymity as “dangerous.”
"Privacy is incredibly important," he said, adding, "Privacy is not the same thing as anonymity.” He went on to say that “if you are trying to commit a terrible, evil crime, it's not obvious that you should be able to do so with complete anonymity.”
We have had discussions about anonymity in our comments sections at DNA recently. When we launched the site in May, it was important to us that DNA provided a platform for insightful, interesting, honest and critical conversation about the tech ecosystem.
I am happy to say that has been the case, at least most of the time. When we noticed some “this sux” and “that sucks” comments coming in, we implemented “ground rules,” advising readers that we will delete comments that do not abide by them.
There have been some that have breached this, but we haven’t yet taken the prerogative to remove them, since such strident calls for attention have largely been drowned by the more intelligent conversations going on around them.
But lately, we’ve noticed what can only be described as “questionable comments” being posted in stories about entrepreneurs and startups in our Sizzle/ Fizzle/ Slow Burn section. “Questionable” because they were posted by “silhouettes” and/ or had content which made sense only if they came from the competitors of the companies in question.
That’s just not cricket. It’s sock puppetry of a different nature or name, but smelling just as foul. And we also realized that as we cover more companies, and as the start-up space here becomes more mature and crowded, as companies vie not so much on different ideas, but on different implementations of essentially the same idea, the competition is only going to get stiffer, and perhaps uglier.
And such foul play may find expression in our comments section.
We don’t want that to happen. One way of preventing this is to make identification a prerequisite for posting comments. We are loath to do so, but will take what action is needed to preserve the integrity of the site, and the generally high level of discourse that takes place here.
But we would like to hear from you, dear readers. Tell us if you would support such a move if it came to the crunch, and why; or if not, why not. Give us the pros and cons. Let’s hear from you.
And yes, you can do so anonymously, if you prefer. :)