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Why online anonymity is an illusion

JY Lee (via SMH) | Nov. 25, 2011
Being anonymous online is a powerful tool.

Being anonymous online is a powerful tool. Leaving aside lower case anonymous users, in the last month, the Anonymous online hackers' movement has targeted a pepper spraying policeman, released 38,000 emails of a US Department of Justice investigator and threatened (then retracted the threat) to release the names of collaborators with a Mexican drug cartel.

Internet users generally think that they gain anonymity by using a pseudonym and that they have a "right" to be anonymous whilst conducting their activities online. When this "right" and the power it holds is challenged by the government or by businesses, it can cause a furore e.g. by previous SA Attorney-General Michael Atkinson last year (who retrospectively repealed a legislative amendment requiring users to post their real names and addresses with any online comments they made about a certain election) or by online platform Google + (which recently relaxed its real names policy).

The Supreme Court of the United States constantly reminds American courts that the First Amendment right, the right to freedom of expression, includes a "right" to anonymity. In Australia, we technically don't have a “right” to freedom of expression. As such, we don't have a “right” to anonymity either.

Frankly, it doesn't make much of a difference; the right to anonymity in the United States isn't a freestanding right that exists outside of all other rights and laws. Rather, as in Australia, the “right” to be anonymous online competes with public interests, such as being subject to the law in areas like defamation, racial discrimination and intimidation, and where law enforcement agencies need a user's identity information to aid with their investigations.

For example, the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 makes it an offence "to do an act, otherwise than in private, if the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person or of some or all of the people in the group."

In this case, an act is not done in private if it "causes words, sounds, images or writing to be communicated to the public". There are a few exemptions for acting in good faith and reasonably in the context of art, academic and scientific works and debates or comments on matters of public interest, but it's not difficult to find comments online which could potentially fall under the definition of the offence and aren't covered by any of the exemptions.


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