Home / Opinion / Majority supports prohibiting anonymous Internet comments

Majority supports prohibiting anonymous Internet comments

Nearly 70 percent of respondents to this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll support a proposal to stop websites from posting malicious anonymous comments, though 23 percent of those say they would back legislation only if it exempts statements of opinion.

Albany lawmakers have proposed a bill to amend the state’s civil rights law to “protect a person’s right to know who is behind an anonymous Internet posting.”

Supporters say the Internet Protection Act is needed to prevent anonymous cyberbullying, baseless political attacks and criticism of businesses by competitors. Opponents say the measure would violate the constitutional right to free speech.

Thirty-two percent of RBJ readers taking part in this week’s poll oppose the act, which has been introduced in both the Assembly and Senate. It would give New Yorkers the right to request the removal of any comments left on a website by an anonymous poster unless that person agrees to attach his or her name to the comment and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name and home address are accurate. Website administrators would be required to post a contact number or email address for removal requests and make it clearly visible in any section where comments are posted.

In response to critics, one sponsor—Assemblyman Dean Murray of Long Island—has said he would consider tightening the language to clarify that the law “would only apply if the statement is challenged, and it can only be challenged based on factual information, not opinion.” Nearly a quarter of the poll respondents support Murray’s plan.

A British woman was granted a court order last week ordering Facebook to disclose the identities of users who were trolling her on the social network. Facebook now can provide the names without breaking a data protection law, and she can use the names to pursue a lawsuit in England.

Roughly 450 readers participated in this week’s poll, which was conducted May 7.

Do you support the proposed Internet Protection Act, which limits anonymous online comments?
Yes: 46%
No: 32%
Yes, if it exempts statements of opinion: 23%

COMMENTS:

If you won’t sign your name, your comment is worthless. For these polls, our statements have to be signed to be published in print or online.
—Mary Spurrier, M. Spurrier Financial Services

This would be a nightmare for service providers. The answer to offensive speech is always more speech, not censorship.
—Matthew D. Wilson

However good, amusing or politically expedient such a law might be, there is no question that would be unconstitutional as a matter of settled law.
—Rob Brown

Now the government is trying to alter our First Amendment right? This is disgusting.
—Joe Dattilo

We should not rush down any legal avenue that would reduce our basic constitutional rights to free speech. Having said this, Internet sites may retain the right to refuse to post materials that they deem unacceptable. By the way, our comments to this poll require signatures already; as noted here, a law is not required for Internet sites to monitor comments as they see fit.
—Laura Weller-Brophy

Free speech is a constitutional right, period! We have lots of lawyers to go after slanderers. All the troubles we have in New York, and this is what they do in Albany?
—George Thomas, Ogden

I would expect this kind of law from China or Syria, but not in the U.S. I am surprised any legislators would risk attaching their names to this bill. By the way, who are the other sponsors besides Dean Murray? I’d like to know if I can vote against them.
—Steve Vaughn

Internet Protection Act, just another excuse to tax or control any freedom we may have left. Why are our New York Assembly and Senate not creating good private-sector jobs? Instead of creating the budget for the New York Internet police?
—G. Palis

You should always stand by what you say!
—Eric Bourgeois, Rochester

On the surface, this seems like a good idea, because the anonymity of the Internet does result in a huge number of annoying and offensive postings. But I can think of cases where anonymity might protect thoughtful, honest but politically dangerous postings, or where a powerful interest group could launch a crusade to systematically eliminate others’ opinions from the Web. The owners of a site should be the arbitrators of discussion on their site and responsible for their own reputation. Our state legislators should look to their educational programs, to see why our schools are turning out people who can’t tell fact from opinion—although better education may make it harder for people to believe the often fear-mongering and flaming messages in campaign commercials.
—Cheryl Breitenbuecher, University of Rochester

When going to war, one knows who the enemy is and can prepare for it. An anonymous letter deserves no respect at all, since the author does not identify themselves!
—J.A. DePaolis, Penfield
If a business or an individual wishes to express their opinion online, they should have that right. However, that right comes with responsibilities. If you say it, own it. If you believe it, stand behind it. Anonymous protection allows people free license to attack, malign, etc., with no consequences and puts the person or business being attacked at a great disadvantage. People cannot effectively fight what they cannot see; the Internet allows incredible freedom, however along with that freedom there needs to be responsibility.
—LS Decker, MVP Health Care

Free speech comes with personal responsibility. This law simply makes people accountable for what they post.
—Mark Preston, MP-OE LLC

Just what we need more of—entrenched legislators in Albany now want to prohibit the citizenry from criticizing them. Don’t we already know that if a legislator doesn’t like what someone says about them, they can unleash the power of the state government on them? Why not call it the New York State Incumbent Lawmaker Protection Act instead? It’s too bad that New York State government measures their effectiveness by the number of laws they pass. There must be some freedom of speech issues here.
—Dave Iadanza, Farmington

We may have the right to free speech, but anonymity is not a right protected under the constitution, in most cases. We also have the right to face our accusers, and anonymity would circumvent attempts to uphold this right, which is protected. If you aren’t willing to put your name to what you say, don’t say it. If people aren’t willing to stand up, find others to support you (chances are you know others who would agree with you). Accepting responsibility for what we say (and do) is an important value. Anonymity on the Internet gives people the ability to say anything they want without thought or care for the impact that it has on others.
—Jennifer Mohr

Your competitor the Democrat and Chronicle has used the fact that they no longer allow anonymous postings to censor negative postings of any kind. If you post something that doesn’t agree with their editorial staff or their coverage or their subscription policy, they simply turn off your ability to comment. How do I know this? Because they have censored me for not agreeing with their editorial or news content. This creates a media where comments are only ones that agree with the presenter of the media—potentially a very dangerous way for the media to create an area of undue influence over public opinion and public information. If the media can identify who is protesting, they can also silence them. I would only want a law like this if it also prevented media companies from censoring anything posted by someone who was not anonymous—has to cut both ways.
—Lee Drake, Owner OS-Cubed, Inc.

I don’t recall that the constitution protects free anonymous speech. As a political activist, I have been the subject of anonymous Internet comments on several occasions. Most of them were pretty vile and wildly untrue. It’s amazing how nasty people can be when hurling their verbal bricks from behind the safety of their Internet anonymity. Such a law is an imperfect solution, but it should give pause to those who harm others without any consequence to themselves. I would want to ensure that there are still legitimate avenues for those who need to anonymously blow the whistle on wrongdoers.
—Dave Garretson, leader of Greece Democratic Committee

Next thing you know, they’ll want to ban posts from somebody like, let’s say, Rick Skanron.
—Rick Skanron

Who gets to decide what "negative" means?
—David Lamb, Rochester

New York State does not have jurisdiction over the Internet. How would you enforce this out of this state? This sounds more like the politicians are getting a thin skin and are trying to curb the frustration taxpayers are feeling towards their elected officials. How about they work on what concerns New Yorkers lower taxes, improve business options and stop being a nanny!
—Mike Knox

If someone is so interested in his/her rights to free speech, then I believe they should agree to own up to the content of that speech. Otherwise, it could come down to hackers running spambots to overwhelm Internet sites with their supposed point of view.
—Margie Campaigne, Margie’s Green Irene Mart

I do not believe that the First Amendment right to free speech should cover anonymous statements. The right applies to individuals who identify themselves or are readily identifiable.
—Nathan J. Robfogel

Taking responsibility for one’s expressed opinions is in my view part of what free speech is all about, whether one’s "press" is traditional hard copy or the modern form of the Internet email or WWW.
—Carl Helmers

I vote "no" because I believe such censorship will inevitably lead to suppression of First Amendment rights. It will make those of minority opinion targets for harassment or worse. Politicians and office holders have the most to gain from passing such legislation to protect themselves. Any organization of power—government, schools, churches, large coalitions of advocates for or against certain issues—gain too much bullying power when someone openly expresses a dissident minority opinion. The government itself recognizes the need for some measure of confidentiality and protection in its whistleblower statutes, where revelation is for the common good. However, what I do support is that any website which accepts anonymous posts must require a genuine e-mail address of the person posting, and that if a case of defamation or harassment is brought against the poster, that it should facilitate disclosure for prosecution purposes. I also favor sites’ removing real hate language and obscene remarks, to at least some minimal standard. And I favor criminalizing hate posts, lies and defamation made by adults against children. I also favor clearer standards as to what constitutes defamation so that lawsuits can be brought by the injured more easily, and not be so subject to the whims of varied judges. If what we have were better enforced we wouldn’t need a lot of new patchwork laws.
—Diane Harris, President, Hypotenuse Enterprises, Inc.

This is a very tricky subject, like slander and libel. In one sense, there good reasons why “there ought to be a law,” but on the other hand we really don’t need the government getting into our lives with control of free speech more than it is now. Could not existing laws apply?
—Paul Conaway, Lockheed Martin

6/15/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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