The introduction and advancement of the internet has brought with it many wonderful experiences to the general population. Many individuals today primarily seem entrenched with texting, downloading apps, blogging, and social networking media. All of these, and several other popular outlets, allow the user to have a voice. Portals like Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and Reddit give the user a readily made microphone; oftentimes the user does not even have to claim their comments. Essentially, many voices on the internet are anonymous. While sometimes this behavior is good-natured, in other situations it can become harassment. It can even become dangerous or criminal. There are few laws to persecute those who harass individuals online, making anonymous speech online a crime that nobody can be held accountable for; this makes it a growing problem that people feel they can perpetrate without consequence.
Unfortunately, many instances of anonymous speech online occur each year. In many cases, they are committed against juveniles by fellow juveniles. The act is known as cyberbullying, according to Jill Burgess and Catherine McLoughlin (2012, 4) and according to their studies, 50% of juveniles today have experienced it. Because of the vastness of the internet and the ease in which new profiles and portals are created every day, and even every minute, victims sometimes do not even know who their attackers are. In many instances, they are aware of their primary attackers, but oftentimes the situation grows out of time and becomes overwhelming for the individual. This was the case for young Megan Meier, a victim of anonymous speech and cyberbullying. She was aware of her primary attackers, but the majority of her harassment came from anonymous senders on social networks such as Myspace . The harassment eventually became too much for Meier, who succumbed to the bullying, hanging herself in her bedroom closet in 2006. The family and local law enforcement had no pathway to prosecute the offenders, allowing them to stay protected for their crimes. A law that would hold them accountable, known as “Megan’s Law” or the “Megan Meier Cyberbullying Prevention Act” was sent to the Senate in 2008 and 2009 but neither were enacted, furthering the problem of anonymous speech online .
The death of Megan Meier’s and the subsequent rejection of laws to hold her harassers accountable only fueled the issues regarding anonymous speech online. It was not as though there was a community of online harassers picking victims to torment, but it did send a message that if a person chose to taunt somebody via the internet, they would not be punished for it, not matter the consequences of their actions. Not holding harassers accountable only continued to allow them to feel safe in harassing. They were free to hurt people without any consequences, as seen in other cases that resulted in death. Further anonymous speech was taken a step further in 2010 when Tyler Clementi was unceremoniously “outed” as being a homosexual when he was recorded without his permission having relations with another man. The video was later shown to fellow students, again without Clementi’s permission, and the emotional harassment forced Clementi into such turmoil that he, like Megan Meier, took his own life . The offenders who caused Clementi’s torment were never tried directly for their crimes, though the individuals who had recorded him without his permission were charged with invasion of privacy. Later the “Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act” was enacted in order to ensure privacy in institutions of higher learning while expanding cyberbullying programs .
As one can plainly be seen, few solutions have been implemented to ensure the safety of individuals against anonymous speech online. The law following Clementi’s death ensured privacy while expanding cyberbullying programs in college, but it is suggested by James W. Carter that programs enacted against cyberbullying should be implemented earlier while children are still learning to understand how important it is to treat people with respect. On a fundamental level, college-aged students may be a lost cause for programs like this. Younger children can benefit from programs that guard against cyberbullying because they are often just learning about social networking, as well as how to use it with their friends . It is good for them to learn how to treat classmates on and off the internet, and if they learn these concepts when they are young, there will be no need for them when they reach higher learning institutions. It will avoid anonymous speech harassment against young individuals such as Megan Meier, and older ones, like Tyler Clementi. There are pros and cons to applying the program to younger ages, however. Employing the program at a state-funded level allows the program implementation to be cheaper; however, the direction of the course will likely be decided by the government and, therefore, may not be as effective as if a college were allowed to bring in outside sources.
The law passed after Clementi’s death had little to do with anonymous speech. It ensured that a certain amount of privacy would be granted to individuals, which coincided with harassment, but did not address anonymous speech directly. The anonymous harassment was not taken seriously even though the law resulting in Clementi’s case was made to seem like a sufficient solution to the problem. A different, alternative solution does not involve the law at all, but internet providers. Users are only allowed to be anonymous because the creators of each page allow that to be so. Reddit users, for example, can pick any photo and use any name they choose when creating a profile. They do not have to use their real names for profile use, nor do they have to use any other valid information . Individuals can be anybody, and behind this cloak of anonymity, sometimes feel as though they can say anything with no consequences. If page creators demanded valid information when users created profiles, perhaps users would not be as inclined to harass others with reckless abandon knowing their name and face would be attached to their comments.
In sum, many issues arise from anonymous speech online. Some individuals have even suffered death because of it. It is easy for individuals to say whatever they want when anonymity is on their side. Laws have been offered to protect the public against this harassment, but most have been rejected. Other solutions involved programs that educate against anonymous online speech, and administrators demanding valid information upon profile creation to eliminate anonymity. While educating the public about the effects of anonymous speech online may appear to be the more obvious solution, eliminating anonymity is the more viable option between the two. Law enforcement will not hold individuals accountable for their actions, though studies show the only reason harassment to this degree occurs is because of anonymity. Education will not eliminate the protection anonymity provides, therefore, if it is eliminated the harassment will be eliminated, as well.
Burgess, Jill and Catherine McLoughlin. "Investigating cyberbullying: Emerging research and e-safety strategies within families and communities ." Communities, Children, and Families (2012): 3-12.
Carter, James W. Local Law Enforcement in the Realm of Cyberspace: The Role of Local Law Enforcement Agencies in Controlling Internet Crime. Columbus: University of Ohio, 2011.
Kowalski, Robin M., Sue Limber and Patricia W. Agatston. Cyberbullying: Bullying in the Digital Age. Chicago: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.