Home > applied ethics, current events > Free speech is not anonymity, and vice versa

Free speech is not anonymity, and vice versa

In which I comment at Butterflies & Wheels on the important moral distinction — which a large segment of the internet seems to have entirely missed — between the justification for protecting free speech and the justification for protecting anonymity.

Not that my comments at B&W are long, but here’s an even shorter version:

Freedom of speech neither includes nor implies freedom from the consequences of your speech. Nor should it!

Anonymity DOES include freedom from consequences; protection from consequences is exactly what anonymity is intended to accomplish.

That is why anonymity must logically and morally be much more limited than free speech: Protecting people from the consequences of their own actions should be limited to a very narrow scope, and it can only be justified where those consequences themselves are unjust (such as protecting a whistleblower from suffering negative consequences for advancing the public good).

People using internet anonymity to be assholes without consequences is NOT something we simply must accept in order to preserve free speech. Free speech is not anonymity, and anonymity is not free speech.

  1. 2012/10/20 at 2:15 pm

    Yes. This (as they say). Freedom of speech is a complicated thing, but it doesn’t encompass everything – like the freedom to yell fire! in a crowded theater, or the right to have what you say taken seriously.

  2. Rebecca Glasencnik
    2012/11/09 at 9:15 am

    Agree with you, but…
    fear of going against a significant group, particularly when in danger for holding views outside the norm can be more harsh censorship than law. then anonymity can be the only method of encouraging free speech. I believe in free speech, and agree with the comment above – but to say free speech doesn’t mean anon. Is a little simplistic. Perhaps the third way – a log on with real details, but screen name different – is acceptable.

  3. 2012/11/09 at 10:32 pm

    Well, no. There is nothing simplistic in saying that free speech does not of itself imply or require anonymity. For example, the First Amendment to the Constitution enshrines free speech in fundamental law without any reference to anonymity. However, I agree with the broader point you are trying to make: Yes, in some circumstances, free speech is impossible without protection from consequences because the consequences for speaking out: speaking against political corruption in a totalitarian country, publicizing illegal actions against the corporation or government agency that employes you, and so on. But that’s exactly the sort of thing I meant when I wrote that protecting people from the consequences of their speech is justified when the consequences themselves are unjust. So since I already said that, I’m not sure what you are expressing disagreement with.

    Your mention of screen names and IP addresses suggests that you are inclined to agree with the common assumption made — not just at Reddit, but widely around the internet — that, in general, anonymity is automatically good for free speech. I don’t think that’s true. To understand why, think about *why* free speech is so valuable: The open exchange of opinions in a free marketplace of ideas is incredibly useful — and maybe even essential — for sorting truth from falsity, nonsense from wisdom, evidence and reason from bullshit and empty rhetoric. (Mill’s brilliant defense of free speech eloquently defends it on these grounds.) But protecting people from the consequences of their speech is not necessarily conducive to realizing those worthwhile goals, and often proves corrosive instead: Anonymous people all-too-often feel free to vent their bigotry and vitriol, and no valuable conversation can occur amongst the shouting matches and general viciousness. When people engage in non-anonymous discussion — in person, or using their own proper names so that their participation reflects directly on their reputation — they are *generally* much more polite, honest, and cooperative in conversations. (This is comparative, of course: When non-anonymous participants in discussion fail to be polite, honest, and cooperative, they are almost never nearly as impolite, dishonest, and uncooperative as they would be if anonymous.)

    So yes, there are certainly contexts where anonymity is valuable and even necessary achieve free speech and what is valuable about free speech; but there are also contexts where anonymity is an obstacle to genuine and meaningful free speech, and undermines the very values that make free speech so important. To assume that anonymity is always good for free speech flies in the face of all the evidence from online forums of all kinds, where accountability almost always generates more worthwhile conversations, and anonymity frequently degenerates into a cesspool of vitriol that quickly drives away anyone who doesn’t agree with the dominant opinion in that particular online community (many sub-Reddits, all of 4chan, etc.). In short, thinking about the value and practice of free speech in relation to anonymity only offers practical reinforcement for my more theoretical argument offered above that justifications for protecting free speech are not automatically also justifications for protecting anonymity; rather, additional justifications are needed for protecting anonymity. Sometimes, protecting anonymity is a bad idea that only harms free speech, rather than enhancing it.

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