More Reasons to Rethink the Comments Section

Most journalists will fight tooth and nail to preserve and strengthen people’s First Amendment rights. They want to secure freedoms of speech, press and expression for themselves and others like them because it is, simply put, the American way. While I am very supportive of these rights, I believe that a person’s freedom to speak should hinge on the fact that they are able and willing to own up to the things they choose to say. I support people having privacy in their personal lives and affairs, but as people speaking in public forums, I believe they should not be granted the same kind of privacy. While I agree that it is important for a person to have both a freedom to speak and a right to privacy, I believe the use of the Internet, specifically the use of anonymous commenting online, changes the game and limits some of those rights, specifically those related to being identified and connected with comments they made.

The easiest way for me to explain these feelings is through a simple analogy. A person would not step out into the streets with a paper bag over his or her head and shout incendiary things to the public while still assuming that he or she would never be identified. He or she would realize that once they made a public statement, they would have to deal with the backlash attached to their comments because, quite frankly, they really weren’t keeping their identities a secret. The same rules apply for the Internet. Maybe people cannot see your face, but they have ways of finding out who you are. There is no reason to expect privacy if you are commenting in a public forum, even under an anonymous name. In 2014, the California Court of Appeals ruled that “anonymous online comments are protected by the California state constitution’s right to privacy,” (Frankel) essentially saying that privacy and free speech work together online in the form of anonymous comments.   What I cannot understand is why this is the case. Why should a person be allowed to say potentially devastating things and not have to own up to it? This seems like a very unfair trade.

In a Reuters article by Alison Frankel, there is much discussion of anonymous speech and the reasons a person may want or need it. The fact of the matter is that I don’t agree with the standards set in this article or in the California court holding. By allowing a person’s identity to be protected in relation to online comments, they no longer have to be held responsible for what they say. A person can lie, berate other people or cause trouble with no concern for the repercussions their actions could have. This, to me, seems reckless. If you couldn’t get away with saying it on the street, I don’t believe you should be safe behind a keyboard, either.

By saying that “privacy and free speech on the Internet actually operate in tandem, not in tension” (Frankel) online, we are giving people too much freedom to not consider their thoughts or statements. A person’s freedom is not infringed by knowing their identity online, but their freedom to act in an uncivil manner may be. If a person is posting something that they couldn’t say if their identity was known, maybe they should not be posting it at all. I am not saying that whistleblowers and other sources of vital information shouldn’t be able to speak up without fear of harm because of their statements, but a comment section is not the venue they should seek. Those types of people need reporters to act as their advocates and hear their stories, all while protecting their privacy.

The Internet affords people with the opportunity to speak freely and be anonymous, but this is not as beneficial as it seems. By not “infringing” the rights of a person to slander or otherwise cause harm to another person or group, we are infringing the protection of that other person or group by leaving them unshielded from false and damaging statements and not allowing them to confront their “attacker.” By not forcing people to own up to their statements, people are free to do and say terrible and detrimental things they could not get away with outside of cyberspace. I believe that while people deserve both the freedom to speak and the right to privacy, the rules must be altered to fit the platform at hand.

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