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Preserving the Online Public Sphere and the Ethical Value of Anonymous Speech

Preserving the Online Public Sphere and the Ethical Value of Anonymous Speech

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Published by Stephanie Parker
Honors Thesis written by Stephanie Parker for Stanford University's Ethics in Society Program. Winner of the Olive & Lyle Cook Prize for best Honors Thesis in Ethics in Society, 2011.
Honors Thesis written by Stephanie Parker for Stanford University's Ethics in Society Program. Winner of the Olive & Lyle Cook Prize for best Honors Thesis in Ethics in Society, 2011.

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Published by: Stephanie Parker on Jun 14, 2011
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06/25/2012

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Preserving the Online Public Sphereand the Ethical Value of Anonymous Speech
 
By Stephanie ParkerStanford University, Class of 2011Ethics in SocietyMay 9, 2011Advisor: Howard RheingoldSecond Readers: Larry Diamond, Vivek SrinivasanPost-Doc Advisor: Kieran Oberman
 
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“I‟m ready to take this all the way to the Su
 preme Court. Our Founding Fathers wrote
„The Federalist Papers‟ under pseudonyms. Inherent in the First Amendment is the right to speak anonymously. Shouldn‟t that right extend to the new public square of the Internet?”
 Salvatore Strazzullo, May 15, 2010Salvatore Strazzullo is the attorney working on the case of Rosemary Port, a blogger whois suing Google for up to 15 million dollars after her identity was revealed to the public in aprevious online defamation case. Port, under an online pseudonym, runs a fashion gossip blog
called ―Skanks of NYC‖ and last year wrote negative remarks about a former supermodel named
Liskula Cohen
, calling her a ―psychotic, lying whore
.
(Rush) The model saw the website andsued to have the identity of the anonymous blogger revealed by way of sending a subpoena toGoogle, claiming that the comments written about her were defamatory. A Manhattan SupremeCourt judge approved the action, and Google was compelled to release
Rosemary Port’s name
for the defamation case. Port claims that her right to privacy and First Amendment right toanonymous free speech have been violated, now that her identity as the writer of all posts on
―Skanks of NYC‖ has been revealed to the public and the press. She plans to
sue Google,
accusing the conglomerate of having "breached its fiduciary duty to protect [Port’s] expectation
of anonymity." While her particular case has little chance of success because Google was bound
 by a court order to release Port’s identity, the question of if and when an anonymous person’s
identity should be unmasked is still relatively open. Her attorney, Strazzullo, asserts that a right
to anonymous speech is ―inherent‖ in the First
Amendment, and that the Internet is a new kind of 
―public square‖ in which ideas should be able to flow freely. Balancing the right
to anonymous
 
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free speech against the right of a plaintiff (in a libel case, for example) to eliminate thatanonymity through subpoena is one of the many ethical challenges facing the courts in recentyears because of the Internet.The next few years will be critical in deciding what we as a society think the place of online anonymity should be in the future of American public discourse, as our speech andinformation become more public through new social networking trends. (Acquisti) The idea thatthe Web is a public resource, a space where people can speak freely and share their opinions isnow coming into conflict with the fact that free speech is not absolute, and that people mostlyturn to privately-owned social sites and blogging platforms to speak out. The companies thatprovide these spaces, such as Facebook and Google, have become the main actors in decidingwho can speak anonymously, in what context, and what they can say; this changes therelationship between citizens, their speech, and the law in important ways that as of yet have notbeen spelled out for the public or the courts to understand. This is what I seek to address in mythesis, through a combination of empirical review, legal analysis, and ethical investigation intothe protection of anonymity under the First Amendment. Because we are at such a crucial turningpoint in online regulatory policy and the formation of public opinion, it is important to take astep back and understand what the impacts of future legal action could be.The United States Supreme Court ruled in
1995 that an individual’s anonymity is
protected under the First Amendment, meaning that any law requiring someone to provide theirname before speaking or publishing their opinions would be deemed unconstitutional. (McIntyrev. Ohio Campaign Commission, 1995) For the United States in particular, anonymous speech hashad an important role in historically significant events: the Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's"Common Sense" were published and distributed under pseudonyms, and during the Civil Rights

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