So much for the First Amendment: Free speech may require your real name in NY

If you’ve spent any amount of time online in the last… well, forever, you may have uncovered the core truth of the Internet: Anonymity can turn people into inconsiderate idiots. But if proposed legislation in the New York State Senate and Assembly passes, that will no longer be the case for sites based in NYC. Is this the kind of idea that will raise the level of Internet discourse, or plunge the web into a dystopian Big Brother-esque hell where no-one can say what they want?

The legislation, officially known as the Internet Protection Act, requires “a web site administrator upon request [to] remove any comments posted on his or her web site by an anonymous poster unless such protestor agrees to attach his or her name to the post and confirms that his or her IP address, legal name, and home address are accurate,” with administrators also being required to “have a contact number or e-mail address posted for such removal requests, clearly visible in any sections where comments are posted.”

According to Republican State Assemblyman Jim Conte, who is sponsoring the legislation, the Act “seeks to combat cyber-bullying by allowing the victim of an anonymous Website posting to request that the post by removed if the anonymous source is unwilling to attach his or her name to it.” In addition to combating cyber-bullying, Conte explains, the Act will also help small business fight… well, Yelp, it seems: “The bill also prevents people from posting anonymous criticism of local businesses. Too often, rival businesses will post negative and false posts to hurt their competition. With more and more people turning to online reviews, it is important to ensure that the posted information, good or bad, is from actual customers and not rival competitors.”

But that’s not all! “Finally,” Conte explains, “the legislation will help cut down on the types of mean-spirited and baseless political attacks that add nothing to the real debate and merely seek to falsely tarnish the opponent’s reputation by using the anonymity of the Web.” The reduction in such mean anonymous attacks will, according to co-sponsor (and fellow Republican) Senator Thomas O’Mara, “help lend some accountability to the internet age.”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees: “This statute would essentially destroy the ability to speak anonymously online on sites in New York,” says the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Kevin Bankston, who also points out that the Act essentially amounts to what he calls “a heckler’s veto to anybody who disagrees with or doesn’t like what an anonymous poster said.” And, somewhat ironically, an anonymous heckler’s veto – nowhere in the legislation does it require that those complaining about anonymous comments have to provide their own legal name, IP address or home address.

State Assemblyman Dean Murray (R-East Patchogue) hopes that the legislation – which has yet to be voted upon – will not only pass, but become a model for similar federal, nationwide, legislation. “There’s got to be a starting point,” he says. “If we don’t start somewhere, it’s not going to spread. A lot of times New York does lead the way for the nation.”

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