The Internet Becomes a Little More Responsible . . . and Respectable

Last month, President Bush signed a bill into law re-authorizing 1994's Violence Against Women Act. This new law modifies the old law's Section 113 and has made a lot of folks unhappy because it's now a felony to harass someone anonymously over the Internet. Google search results for "Section 113" and "violence against women" sure make it seem that everyone's upset about this law.

Well, almost everyone; the law seems fine to me. I must admit that I'm perplexed about people's reaction to it. I don't feel any outrage about the fact that as of 2006, you have to identify yourself before saying something on the Internet that harasses someone. I mean, the new law doesn't make it illegal to be a jerk; it just makes it illegal to be a jerk who hides behind an Internet-attached keyboard.

Here are the simplified specifics: The 1994 law made it illegal to use a telephone to harass someone anonymously. The idea was that it's possible for a jerk to call a woman (or a man, I suppose, although the law's name suggests that it's intended for females) at any hour of the night and then hang up, at least waking her and at worst frightening and alarming her. Bothering someone at all hours of the night clearly is a nasty thing to do, but using the phone to do it anonymously makes it worse, as it's now harder for her or the authorities to find the jerk. Yes, there's Caller ID, but for some incomprehensible reason, it's illegal in some places and easy to work around in other places. The 2006 revision of Section 113, "Preventing Cyberstalking," changed the old law's term "telephone" into the more generic "telecommunications device," which includes Internet-accessible computers. The law seems to mean that if I anonymously post a message somewhere on the Internet(e.g., a blog, newsgroup, online forum) that someone perceives as harassment, then the government could arraign me under Section 113 and punish me with fines and up to two years in prison. (I'd tell you what the fines are, but no one seems to know. It seems that every Web page uses the terms "onerous fines" or "stiff fines" except for the page with the actual law on it.)

No matter what motivated the legislation, it's now the law of the land in the United States, and it's upsetting a lot of people. There are literally hundreds of Web pages decrying it, but I'd like to respectfully disagree with the authors of those pages.

Many of you might recall a famous July 1993 New Yorker cartoon depicting a dog sitting on a swivel chair in front of a computer, saying to another dog, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." That's true--and it's funny--but it's also true that on the Internet nobody knows that someone is a child molester on the prowl, a businessperson seeking to unscrupulously ruin the reputation of a competitor, or an antisocial jerk looking to insult someone who can't fight back--and that's not funny.

The naysayers' resistance to the new Section 113 is strange because we don't feel that anonymity is a good thing in other parts of our lives. I don't think too many people would prefer a world in which anyone could drive cars around without license plates. If anonymously driving America's superhighways is a bad idea, then why would surfing the information superhighway anonymously be a good one? Does anyone seriously think that people should have the right to don a ski mask before entering a bank, or is it acceptable to deny someone the right to be anonymous in that situation?

I suspect that some of the resistance to Section 113 is a matter of mistaken terms. It's easy to confuse privacy--which I think we all have a right to--with anonymity. If you visit my Web site and want to join the online forum discussion, then you must first create a user account and a password, and you must offer a valid email address. You have the right to expect that I will never give that password or email address to anyone. If you purchase something on my site, you have the right to know that I won't tell anyone what you bought, your credit card number, or any other personal information. That's me respecting your privacy, not your right to anonymity.

Why rail against anonymity? Because it absolves us of accountability. Have you ever been lied to on the phone by a customer service agent who just wanted to tell you whatever was necessary get you off of the phone? We all have. So, when I talk to a customer service person, I ask right off, "Hi, what's your name?" I usually get more complete information that way, and you probably have as well. Remove the anonymity, and you increase the responsibility. (You can probably guess how much I like working with companies whose employees don't give out their names.)

As someone who writes about solving technical networking problems, I get dozens of questions a day from readers via email. Some I can answer, but many I can't. In those cases, I apologize for not being able to help and suggest that the reader look for help on one of the excellent discussion forums on the Internet. Many of these people tell me that they're downright afraid of asking questions on the Internet or of joining online discussions. They're afraid of being vilified, belittled, and insulted. Back when the Internet began to grow, is this what we expected of it? The tool that was to be the great democratizer, the great leveler? I don't think so. Would the vilifiers and the belittlers hurl their vitriol if their victims knew their identities? I don't think so, and I think I can offer at least one piece of data to back that up.

Three years ago, I started the online forum that I mentioned before. I've asked that my guests tell the forum just three things about themselves: their first name, last name, and their resident country. Now, let's be clear. No one has to provide those things; it's just a courtesy that I request. During those three years, I have seen two things. First, the community has turned out be a remarkably courteous, friendly, and helpful bunch of folks that I've greatly enjoyed getting to know. Second, we've had very few flame exchanges--perhaps two a year. In every one of those cases the person who started things, the one with the mean-spirited and obnoxious comments was--you guessed it--someone who went by a handle instead of a real name. To the bemoaning person who's dealing with the fallout of the worm du jour, the anonymous say, "Well, sweetie, I guess next time you'll remember to patch," whereas the citizens using their real names say, "Yeah, it's a pain that these Microsoft security holes keep turning up, but here's a tool that'll remove the worm. Here's where to find the patch." It's the same message in many ways, but one approach leaves the supplicants smarting and sure not to return, and the other encourages them to put out this fire and come back to help others. I know some of you are thinking, "Well, it's all fine and good to ask people to identify themselves, but how do you verify that identity?" That's a good question, but one that I haven't the space to answer in this column . . . but I will soon, I promise.

If you're still not sold on the revised Section 113, then consider this unintended benefit: I think we can all agree that all the spam we get everyday is annoying--downright harassing--and they're all anonymous, as the return addresses are always bogus. So as it turns out, Section 113 gives us the excuse to put a spammer in the slammer for a couple of years. I kinda like that . . . "Put a spammer in the slammer!"

Privacy is important on the Internet. If it's removed, then e-commerce won't function and, worse, identity theft will become easier. But we can still have privacy without anonymity, and without anonymity, I think we have something even better . . . civility.

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