anonymity in social media

CNET's Declan McCullagh & Collette Vogele

Should social media sites should curb anonymity? As reported by CNET’s Elinor Mills (@elinormills), that was the subject of a debate between a couple lawyers at SXSW this afternoon. Seattle lawyer, Collette Vogele (@vogelelaw), of the nonprofit group, Without My Consent, providing paths to justice for victims of online harassment, and a Microsoft senior copyright counsel (not speaking on behalf of her employer) was on one side. Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was on the other. Vogele believes anti-anonymity, anti-pseudonymity policies were a better business practice that would attract more users and reduce the number of cases of online harassment, especially of women.
Anonymity has a place in society, but you shouldn’t allow it on your social site.

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…[O]nline harassment cases–such as that of blogger Kathy Sierra, who was driven offline after receiving anonymous threatening e-mails on her blog–illustrate other threats from anonymity. Requiring identities will keep things civil.

Cohn believes anonymity is needed to allow freedom of expression and has been vital for pro-democracy movements such as last year’s revolutions that spawned the phrase the Arab Spring.

This country was founded on unpopular ideas by unpopular speakers and they used anonymity. It’s part of why we have protection of freedom of speech, to protect unpopular ideas. The Federalist papers were not signed, neither were the comments to them.

I understand where Cohn is coming from. In many countries the threat of reprisal from the government is a legitimate reason to be anonymous. But I don’t see where anonymity has any place in social media other than in those isolated cases. In online legal discussion in the U.S. anonymity serves no legitimate purpose. I don’t see a reason for lawyers, who are to champion rights and causes for people, to hide behind a pseudonym. And don’t get me started on lawyers with Twitter and other social networking handles using pseudonyms describing what they do, as opposed to using their names. That’s just silly and does not merit being part of the more serious debate discussed at SXSW.