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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Hiding Online Is Dangerous But Should Not Be Outlawed

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

Sarah Tarter

If you’ve ever seen the show Catfish or received a lecture about online safety, you are probably aware that the safety concerns of anonymity on the Internet can exceed beyond the realm of verbal assault and into the territory of physical danger. Not only can the computer screen act as a shield from criticism and ostracization, thereby allowing users to make comments that are socially unacceptable, but it can also function as a tool of predation. Online predators can hide behind the cloak of anonymity in order to bait users into dangerous situations, where they may be subject to physical abuse and/or sexual harassment.

On a less overtly sinister level, anonymity can function as a tool for fierce and pervasive bullying. While this danger begins in the form of verbal harassment, it too can have real physical consequences. The Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy tells the story of two young women who experienced severe cyberbullying after being subject to sexual assault. Audrie Pott, one of the main subjects of the film, took her own life after she felt she could no longer sustain the relentless harassment from her peers.

Audrie and I are from the same hometown, and her story has brought the brutality of cyberbullying into focus for my local community. The film as a whole has given the dangers of cyberbullying a place in national conversations, but as long as anonymity is permitted on the Internet, the problem will never truly be solved.

Given the emotionally and physically damaging consequences that anonymity can engender, it makes sense for us to question whether or not we can deem it permissible. After witnessing its capacity for abuse, it seems only logical for us to suggest that anonymity on the Internet should be forbidden.

Despite the logistical challenges that would accompany outlawing anonymity, we must consider the complex legal web that enshrouds such a task. The act of banning anonymity would infringe on our right to free speech, and for that reason, it should not be pursued. Although, as we have already seen, there are numerous negative consequences to anonymous online communication, we cannot jeopardize the right to free speech in order to avoid such consequences.

After all, anonymity can also function as a tool for meaningful connection among individuals who are coping with sensitive issues and searching for a trusting community. For example, there are online grief support groups, suicide chat lines, LGBTQ support groups, addiction support groups, and other web forums that provide meaningful help and encouragement for those who may be too afraid to ask for help in person or to attach their name to their story. In these cases, anonymity honors the privacy of individuals in search of support, and fosters a safe environment for them to share.

While the Internet’s capacity for anonymity introduces a host of entirely valid safety concerns, such reasoning is insufficient for justifying its expulsion. While anonymity on the Internet poses several challenges to free speech, outlawing it altogether shuts down the right to free speech in a very explicit way, and would set a precarious precedent.

Nov 10, 2017

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