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Anonymity On The Internet Equals Unidentified Criminals

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Anonymous communication via the internet leads to more crimes and unnamed suspects. In an age when every man, woman, and child is a publisher on the Internet; the uses and misuses of anonymity is a subject that should be examined. It is one thing when anonymity in a victims' support group allows participants to express their problems and deepest feelings without risk of further embarrassment or harassment; it is another when a pedophile hides behind a cybernetic alias in order to peddle child pornography. "Accountability requires those responsible for any misconduct be identified and brought to justice. However, if people remain anonymous, by definition they cannot be identified, making it impossible to hold them accountable", states David Davenport (2003). I definitely believe people should be identified when found guilty of misconduct via the internet. Legitimacy might be claimed by a political gadfly or whistle blower delivering cybernetic broadsides through the ether, but what of the sociopath neo-Nazi, whose mission is to bring down the government of the United States and its institutions; and who offers those similarly inclined the online means to do it? And, the fact that one is faceless except for a user or screen-name, which may or may not correspond in any way, shape, or form to one's live identity, seems to have resulted in a number of unintended consequences. "The ultimate implication, I believe, is that to achieve a civilized form of cyberspace, we have to limit the use of anonymous communications," David Johnson wrote in "The Unscrupulous Diner's Dilemma and Anonymity in Cyberspace" (Noah, 1996). The limiting of such communications would assist in making the World Wide Web a safer place or all.

First, with no way for anybody to easily identify the person behind an email, post, or chat-room participant, one can be as abrasive, rude, crude, or harassing as one wishes. This is especially evident in both AOL chat-rooms and in on-line "flame wars" in and newsgroups. Instances of offenders banished from chat groups and newsgroups, only to sneak in using alternate usernames are well documented. As with the example of the sexual predator, militia groups and holocaust revisionists, as well as members of organized crime and terrorists can hide behind the cloak of anonymity. "The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 sought to ban indecent speech and pornographic images from the Internet to protect minors from reading or viewing such material" (Stevens, 1998). Although no one can reasonably argue that the Internet is a "scarce" medium, proponents of Internet censorship relied very heavily on the argument that the Net is "pervasive," meaning that it comes into the house and may present speech inappropriate for minors. The "harmful to minors" standard is a three-prong test. "It requires that the material appeal to the prurient interest, that it be patently offensive as to what is suitable to minors and that--taken as a whole--it lack any serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value as to minors" (Coats, 2002). All three prongs must be met for the material to be determined harmful to minors. A closely related argument is that anonymous speech is more dangerous on the Internet because of the lack of gatekeepers, such as publishers, editors, or television producers who may know the identity of the anonymous speaker or filter out anonymous speech. David Davenport (2003) wrote, "The very notion of free speech under law means protecting the speaker from prosecution and persecution, thus the speaker's identity is known". Therefore, the arguments people make that internet anonymity protects the right of speech is a false argument.

Second, confusion over important issues is not unusual. With current discussion about so-called virtual communities, to what extent can there be a true community of individuals if one is unsure to whom one is talking? In an apocryphal Doonesbury strip of some years back, Mike Doonesbury engages in some on-line flirting with someone he knows only by the "handle" "Dancer." Turns out, Dancer is actually Mark Slackmeyer, Mike's former college roommate, who is gay. Neither Mike, as "Tin Man," nor Mark, as "Dancer," were aware of the other's live identity or even gender. Sometimes misrepresentation can be deliberate. A vaguely harmless albeit, or for some a disturbing lark, will involve assuming the Internet name of a female, just to evoke reactions of others on-line. As one who attempted this in an AOL chat room, I can attest the reception I received was quite different from when I used a male or gender-neutral screen-name. In cases that are not nearly as harmless, sexual predators, usually pedophiles, will assume the on-line name and/or persona of a child in order to gain the child's trust for malicious and illegal purposes.

Third, as we recently

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