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All users posting to websites would have to post their real name and address, non-compliant posts would be axed

When people think anonymity, Anonymous and their iconic Guy Fawkes masks often pop into mind these days.  But long before the members of that controversial hacker collective were a mere twinkle in their mothers' eyes, another anti-authoritarian rabble-rouser was using anonymous protest to stir up revolt against a totalitarian ruling elite.  His name was Thomas Paine, and his anonymously published work Common Sense helped ignite the colonists in revolution against Britain.

I. Want to Post?  Put Your Legal Name and Address Here!

Yet today in the country that Thomas Paine's anonymous writings helped to give birth to, a country in which speech is supposedly free, something alarming is happening.  Several states are looking to outlaw online anonymity.

New York is among them.  The State Senate is contemplating Bill S6779 a measure that would force users to post (and verify) their home address, IP address, and legal name in any post they make online.

That's right; New York is considering laying waste to privacy and anonymous speech in the name of "preventing" online bullying.  The bill describes:

A web site administrator upon request shall remove any comments posted on his or her web site by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate. All web site administrators shall have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any sections where comments are posted.

It's unclear exactly how much support the bill has in the State Senate.  It was introduced just over two months ago by Sen. Thomas F. O'Mara (R—Big Flats).  

Senator Thomas O'Mara
New York Republican State Senator Thomas O'Mara wants to force anonymous internet posters to surrender their right to anonymous free speech.
[Image Source: Thomas O'Mara]

Under the plan, New York State law enforcement officials and employees would be taxed with -- using taxpayer money -- sending takedown requests to websites.  Of course, the irony is that the law is grossly out of line with federal laws -- and likely unconstitutional -- thus if a website is hosted by out of state companies New York regulators might have no way of "forcing" websites like 4Chan or blogs to expose their users.

II. First Amendment, Anyone?

Such a practice would be unacceptable to most web businesses involving user-generated posts.  Not only would it violate user privacy and raise legal liability issues, it would also likely decrease participation.  At the same time it would hit sites with a double whammy by requiring them to pay for expensive code additions and extra administration.

The First Amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Several state laws prohibiting anonymous pamphlets have already been ruled unconstitutional.  See Talley v. California (1960) and McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), for Supreme Court rulings defending citizens' right to anonymous speech and printed works.

Supreme Court
Despite at least two Supreme Court rulings beating them back, states' effort to ban anonymous free speech has persisted into the digital era [Image Source: City-Data]

Thus, one thing is for sure -- if New York does adopt this wild restriction of civil liberties, it will surely be swiftly challenged.  And based on past precedent, it will almost certainly be ruled illegal on First Amendment grounds.

Sources: NY State Senate, AP

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RE: The End of Free Speech?
By Solandri on 5/26/2012 12:07:54 PM , Rating: 2
Let's get one thing perfectly clear - In the US, you have a Constitutional right to "Free Speech. That means that you can say what you like, as long as it doesn't constitute libel on your part. You do NOT have a Constitutional right to be Anonymous, period! You are responsible for what you say or write, no matter when or where you do it. That's part of being a "responsible adult".

Um, wow. Most of the founding fathers of the U.S. would've been arrested and jailed by Great Britain if they'd been forced to say/write what they felt openly. The revolutionary ideas only spread and took hold because they were able to distribute them anonymously in the form of leaflets, newsletters, and books. The Constitution does not say anything about anonymity not because it doesn't protect it, but because it's so obviously implicit in the Free Speech clause.

When appraising laws, you cannot only consider how they work in the ideal case. You have to also consider the worst way they can be abused. And the worst way you can abuse a loss of anonymity is to make trumped-up charges to arrest and jail anyone who disagrees with the government. The chilling effect that would have on free speech is precisely what the 1st Amendment seeks to prevent.

When the Internet started, you sent mail directly between users computers, and you know exactly who was sending the messages you received. As the internet grew, so did the ways of sending and receiving information, and direct transfers of messages was dropped in favor of servers, allowing anonymous messages. That turned the internet into the Electronic Wild West it is today.

No, you have that backwards. I was there. When the Internet was new, most hosts were connected via UUCP. They didn't have dedicated connections. They'd queue up mail, news, then (usually overnight when rates were lowest) make a long-distance phone call to transmit that data to their upstream host. Only the top hosts (e.g. MIT, Berkeley, UCLA) had dedicated connections between each other.

In those days, emails were sent over a multiple hub-spoke model much like connecting airline flights. If I sent an email from Harvey Mudd (my undergrad school) to Boston University, it wouldn't go straight to BU. HMC didn't know where was, so it would send it up a level to Claremont McKenna (central server for the Claremont Colleges). CMC wouldn't know how to deliver it so it would send it up a level to UCLA, which likewise would give up and send it to UC Berkeley. Berkeley would say, ah ha, this is an East coast address, and send it to MIT. MIT would say, "oh yeah, I know those guys," and deliver it to BU.

Except for the UCLA-Berkeley-MIT hops, none of those were dedicated connections. Each were phone calls which added an hour or so to the time for the mail to be delivered. Back then it wasn't unusual for an email to take days or even a week to get to an obscure address (some sites only connected to exchange data once every night).

It's this hierarchical node structure with multiple connections that made the Internet magical. Each host didn't have to know how to deliver mail to every other host. As long as they could kick it upstream, someone who knew how to deliver it would eventually get it going in the right direction. (This is why the DoD paid to develop the Internet. They wanted a network which would still work if large parts of it were wiped out by nuclear attacks. As long as any one route between two nodes still exists, the Internet will eventually be able to deliver data between those two nodes. The nodes don't have to know the route ahead of time.)

Nowadays with everyone sitting on dedicated connections, when you send an email from to, the mail server at HMC makes a direct connection to the mail server at BU and sends the email within seconds. The data packets are still routed the same way email used to be (hop by hop), but the dedicated connections mean it acts like a virtual direct connection.

Well, just like the Wild West died, the internet version will also die. It's just a matter of time. Part of IPv6 is addressing this, and eventually everyone on the internet will be identified by their IP address.

In the early days of the Internet, sysadmins believed that email, news, and hosted services like ftp would fall apart if people were allowed to be anonymous. Everyone self-imposed a requirement that your email address and user account be linked to your real identity. In hindsight, it wasn't based on any real evidence. It was based on a theoretical belief that the inner troll in everyone would be let out if people were allowed to be anonymous.

Anonymity came about in two ways at about the same time. First, computers started coming down in price enough to where you could run your own server with its own IP address. You could create your own accounts, including anonymous usernames and email addresses. Second, AOL joined the Internet, and they allowed each account to have up to 5 self-chosen usernames (so a family could share a single account). But there was no way short of a subpoena to link a to a specific account or individual.

And people have been talking about IPv6 since the early 1990s (I "warned" some of my friends about the switchover around the mid-1990s). It's been pushed back so much it's really anyone's guess as to if it'll eventually take hold. Yeah ideally we'd switch to IPv6, but the prevalence of NAT on IPv4 takes care of most of the problems IPv6 solves. So the switchover isn't going to be quick, nor is it even guaranteed.

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs

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