I was just on HuffPost Live and boy are my undefined terms tired. The segment title was “Is Anonymity Good For Free Speech,” and the segment description is as follows:
With the recent unmasking of Reddit troll “ViolentAcrez” and Amanda Todd’s harasser, exposing anonymous trolls seems beneficial. But does anonymity protect free speech?
The problem is, this doesn’t make any sense. First of all, it isn’t clear that Amanda Todd’s real harasser was exposed — at the very least, there are enough red flags for me to slap on a big flashing “unconfirmed” sign. Secondly, and more annoyingly, “anonymity” and “free speech” are, on their own, empty abstract nouns. Do you mean anonymity in the front-facing sense, like you’re posting to Twitter under an alt account not publicly attached to your name, or posting anonymously to a blog that requires an email to register but then allows you to post under whatever name you want? Do you mean anonymity like the admins of the website you’re using don’t and can’t know what IP address is attached to your account? Do you mean anonymity like not in any way traceable to your own name or IP address or anything that could possibly in anyone’s hands be connected back to you? Do you mean anonymity like some sort of unalienable legal right people think they have to say whatever they want on the internet? Because that’s not a thing; no one has the legal right to be anonymous on a privately-owned website on the internet. Not to say that anonymity online can’t be important and good, it’s just that there’s no law in the constitution that says we all get to BE that, on Reddit.
And don’t even get me started on “free speech,” since…………that’s not a thing people have either, at least not in the way they might think. Free speech in the legal sense is about keeping the government in check (you know, that whole thing about the American Revolution, and tyranny and all), and ensures that Congress shall pass no laws restricting speech — except in the cases of fighting words, copyright infringement, child pornography, libel, incitement to violence, and threats. Those things are all illegal; Congress can pass all the laws they want restricting unprotected speech. So, it makes sense to talk about free speech if the government arrests you for engaging in speech that THEY say is restricted and YOU say is not (or shouldn’t be). It does not make sense to talk about free speech when a journalist exposes the identity of a pedophile on a privately-owned website that thinks pedophiles are pretty cool guys. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t ethical issues involved in the Violentacrez clusterwhoops; of course there are, jesus. But these aren’t free speech issues, and shouldn’t be described as such until the feds press charges against Brutsch (fingers crossed), and he contests the arrest on first amendment grounds.
So, any conversation that is predicated on the assumption that “anonymity” can “protect” “free speech” (because that’s what anonymity does best, action verbs) is doomed to end up chasing its own tail. In this particular case, I had no idea what was being discussed, and even less of an idea of how to connect these ideas to trolling. Other than anonymity, and free speech. WHICH ARE NOT ANSWERS THEY ARE ABSTRACT NOUNS.