What's behind the NY bills to ban anonymous online comments

<b>commentary</b> Let's take a closer look at proposed legislation in New York that would eradicate anonymous online speech. Whose interests are being served?

Violet Blue
4 min read

In New York state, legislators in both chambers have proposed bills that would force Web sites to police the identities of anonymous commenters

Under the proposed Internet Protection Act (S06779), when anyone complains about an anonymous (or pseudonymous) comment, the Web site must make the commenter attach their "real name" to the comment or the anonymous comment would by law have to be removed. 

That's right: if someone doesn't like your comment the Web site will be legally bound to make you reveal your identity. The accused commenter will also be required to verify that his or her "IP address, legal name and home address are accurate." 

Since most Web sites don't have the resources or time to police comments in such an overreaching manner, the Internet Protection Act, if passed, will most likely result in the mass deletion of comments for any reason -- or none at all. New York Web sites might just save themselves trouble by adopting a "real names" policy, similar to Google Plus and Facebook. 

The identity of those complaining will not need to be verified as "real."

Republican Assemblyman Jim Conte says his legislation will address the problem of "mean-spirited and baseless political attacks." 

Conte, who is the proud author of the Internet Protection Act, also says his legislation will stop "anonymous criticism of local businesses" and will stop "cyberbullies by forcing them to reveal their identity."

Commenters in various forums are saying this is a free speech issue, plan and simple. But how would not being able to post anonymously violate First Amendment protections? 

The First Amendment implications of the Internet Protection Act could range from silencing speech to determining whether or not commenters have free speech protections -- or whether entering into a contract with a Web site (its use) means giving up one's constitutional rights. 

The California Anti-SLAPP Project calls the Act "unconstitutional" saying:

So much for the constitutional right to speak anonymously on issues of public interest, a right which the Supreme Court has affirmed multiple times.

It all seems inexplicably impractical. Which means it could simply be yet another instance of lawmakers panicking about reigning in the "out of control Internet" without having any clue what they're doing. 

I don't know about you, but I find it hard to believe that anyone could be that Internet ignorant. (Although someone should probably tell Mr. Conte about dynamic IP addresses.)

Some people talking about this proposed Nymwars legislation feel that there's more to this, and there are a couple of interesting conspiracy theories. 

 Conspiracy theory #1: A desperate bid to lift sagging Facebook stock 

When he reported the story for Wired's Threat Level on Tuesday, David Kravets put forth an interesting theory:

A cynic, however, might see an attempt by lawmakers to prop up Facebook's falling stock price via an implicit endorsement of the Facebook model of identity on the internet.

When Kravets wrote this, it was certainly true that Facebook's stock was headed for trouble. 

Currently, Facebook's valuation doubts are rising, and the newly-minted stock is taking a beating. Allegations have surfaced that Facebook's bankers secretly cut FB revenue estimates in the middle of its IPO roadshow.

This is bad all around, and MIT's Technology Review predicts that Facebook is about to crash and take the market with it -- specifically by dragging down the ad-supported Web. 

A social network's "real name" policy is critical to the worth of its data and its value to advertisers. But keeping Facebook's data valuable makes sense to Facebook, not necessarily to the rest of the Web sites in New York state. 

If this is like the maxim, "if the water rises, all the boats rise" then it's a pretty thin theory on which to float a legislative boat. 

Conspiracy theory #2: Silencing the government's critics 

Curbing cyberbullies and protecting small businesses from unethical attacks are noble causes, but this standard anti-pseudonym Nymwars argument falls flat. 

It still remains to be proven that "real name" policies actually stop harassment -- most evidence points to this theory being a fallacy. 

Something still doesn't add up: the addition of "mean-spirited and baseless political attacks" to the legislation's intent. 

We're at a time when all levels of our government are struggling to control (and get its hands on) the Internet -- SOPA and CISPA come to mind.  

And right now, Congress is interested in lifting the propaganda ban in the United States. It intends to reverse a longstanding policy and legalize the use of political propaganda on American audiences, especially online. 

The House of Representatives just passed the National Defense Authorization Act, with one stand-out amendment: the "propaganda amendment" seeks to "strike the current ban on domestic dissemination" of propaganda. 

Its authors (Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash.) have stated they are especially concerned about the Internet's ability to undermine the government's credibility.

While a relationship between the Internet Protection Act of New York and the federal push to legalize propaganda is a compelling conspiracy theory, this would make sense if New York was getting some kind of federal bailout money out of the deal -- which is what some commenters on Wired seem to think. Perhaps politicians on Capitol Hill and in Albany simply share the same, odd views of freedom of speech. 

Either way, many people are feeling like the Internet Protection Act isn't going to protect them from being bullied online -- by their own elected representatives.