The Internet provides a platform for every man to stand up and be heard, but it is also a hiding place for unnamed trolls to pelt insults and accusations. Should—or can—online anonymity be outlawed? City News poses this issue to two of Singapore’s most recognized bloggers, mr brown and Mr. Miyagi.
Contributed By Brian Liu
In the aftermath of the General Election in May, several local online publications and individuals began broadcasting that the newly-elected Member of Parliament, Ms. Tin Pei Ling, had been promoted to directorship at Ernst & Young. The implication was that her electoral win had garnered her a triple promotion at work.
Understandably, this piece of news sent negative shockwaves throughout cyberspace, impacting not only Tin, but also the management and employees of Ernst & Young. On June 1, Tin resigned from the accounting firm to focus on her duties as a politician.
This form of Internet “abuse” has come to the attention of lawmakers, which is why libel legislation is in place in some countries. But how can prosecution take place if the parties involved cannot be identified?
Online anonymity allows for deep feelings—whether politically correct or not—to be expressed. The Internet has increased in its standing as a platform for individuals online to air their views and propagate their beliefs. Naturally as its power grows, concerns about online censorship and anonymity have entered the picture.
“In cases where it’s a public discussion, be it about matters of general interest, current affairs or policies pertaining to the whole nation, online anonymity sometimes brings to question the credibility of whoever is posting comments or content as the person may have a vested interest in doing so,” says Benjamin Lee, who goes by the online moniker Mr. Miyagi (miyagi.sg).
The Internet is an unfettered entity and individuals can conceal their real identity online if they so wish. This happens particularly in public online forums or chat sites. Users can comment and criticize on public forums behind a username, without fear of repercussion. Whatever regulation there is, is enforced by moderators who are responsible for blocking, editing or removing inappropriate material and the offending individuals from the public conversation.
POLICING THE WEB
So, can and should the Internet be policed to stop abuse? “I’m dreadfully against legislation for online activity,” declares the “Blogfather” of Singapore, mr brown or Lee Kin Mun. “It’s like saying everyone should be tracked wherever they go, so that we can make sure no crime is committed. It’s dreadfully Draconian. Already there’s so little privacy as it is, to remove anonymity online is not only wrong, it’s fruitless.”
The arguments for online anonymity are obvious. “When an online space is being used for whistleblowing purposes, identities should be protected under the law, because a person’s career or even his safety might be at stake,” says Miyagi. Another touchy area where identities are best kept secret is that of health concerns, where the disclosure of personal medical conditions in the context of genuine discourse may jeopardize the interest of the user.
Being identified also puts users at risk of cybercrime, identity theft and an onslaught of online marketers. The recent case of Sony’s database being hacked and personal information of thousands of users allegedly stolen is a case in point.
“The Chinese users have already proved that you can’t stop them doing what they want. When you start legislating, users will find other ways to be anonymous,” says brown. “Right now, clueless people posting nonsense on forums can be tracked. But if you make it illegal, people will start looking for ways to do it under the radar, and it will be even harder to police.”
“Generally, Singaporeans are a well-behaved lot and it is heartening to note that we do have a civic-minded, intelligent group of netizens, as observed during the recent General Election,” notes Miyagi, pointing out that when it comes to things that matter, Singaporeans are willing to voice their views through social networking sites like Facebook, where their faces and personal details are there for all to see.
SOUTH KOREA’S CLAMPDOWN
One of the few nations getting tough on online abuse is South Korea, whose government has been taking active steps toward diminishing online anonymity since 2008, when it passed a law that required users of major internet portals to log in with verified identities before they can comment or post any publicly viewable content. Non-citizens must submit a copy of their passport and have their identities verified before they can set up an account to log in.
What drove the South Korean government to push through such controversial legislature? Key issues were national security and social sensitivities between South and North Korea.
There was also the suicide of Korean actress Choi Jin-Sil, who killed herself after being subject to relentless online attacks about her divorce and life as a single mother. While this sparked public outcry at the loss of its television sweetheart, one of the linchpin events for the case of diminishing online anonymity was political in nature.
In one presidential election, false online information about one of the candidates was circulated. The charges were so severe that it was hard for anyone not to agree with the fact that the candidate’s loss at the election was caused by the character assassination online. After the election, the truth came to light and the rumors were proven to be false, but the damage had been done.
South Korea’s legislation has made it possible for those maligned to go to the police and report libel, and legal action can be taken against those who routinely post defamatory remarks.
Still, as attested by the growing numbers of Facebook users in China—despite the fact that the social networking site is banned there—trying to hem users in by legal means may not be the most effective technique.
THE END OF ONLINE ANONYMITY?
People need to learn how to “tell the difference between someone who is trolling and someone who is not,” says brown. According to Wikipedia, “In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response, or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”
“Ultimately, you decide what you are going to believe. Savvier users of social media will consider the importance of their credibility. If it is important, they will do some self-policing,” he says.
If, like the unfortunate Korean actress, you are the target of online attacks, brown says “There is a limit to what you can do [so] let it play itself out.”
Indeed, in the fast-changing world of the Internet, rules are changing at breakneck speed. The New York Times noted in a June 20, 2011 article “Upending Anonymity: These Days The Web Unmasks Everyone” that it’s nearly impossible to remain anonymous in today’s increasingly linked and tagged world.
“This erosion of anonymity is a product of pervasive social media services, cheap cellphone cameras, free photo and video Web hosts, and perhaps most important of all, a change in people’s views about what ought to be public and what ought to be private,” notes NYT writer Brian Stelter. “Experts say that websites like Facebook, which require real identities and encourage the sharing of photographs and videos, have hastened this change.”
The writer says that “technology will play an even greater role in the identification of once-anonymous individuals: Facebook, for instance, is already using facial recognition technology in ways that are alarming to European regulators.”
So, it could well be that the technology that has so far been making it easy for trolls to malign others without mercy right now will be the same technology that will make it impossible for them to remain in hiding for long. Till then, brown’s advice is probably worth heeding: “Don’t like, don’t read.”