06 December 2013

The Case For Online Anonymity

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says that laws are needed to combat the growing problem of cyber-bullying and other forms of Internet harassment, particularly as the young are especially vulnerable and may end up depressed or suicidal. There is also the phenomenon of trolls setting out just to disrupt proper, constructive discussions by hurling abuse and stirring hate.[1]

Such behaviour is totally unacceptable face-to-face, and should be totally unacceptable online too. "We" must fight back against trolling and provide a safe, responsible online environment which promotes constructive participation.[1]

Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs K Shanmugam says that the online environment, like the physical sphere, needs laws to curb harassment of people to such an extent that they commit suicide, cyber-bullying and putting out falsehoods which have no basis.[2]

Clearly, cyber-bullying and other forms of harassment, trolling and outright lies are despicable acts.
 
But do they justify disallowing anonymous comments completely? Is there a case for Internet anonymity?

Mr Shanmugam asks why people should be uncomfortable expressing their views on political and social issues unless they want to say untruths, if they want to bully and if they want to… distort the truth.[2]

In other words, we shouldn't be uncomfortable expressing our views on political and social issues if our views are not untruths, half truths or distortions.
 
Reprisals
But not everyone is convinced that there will be no repercussions for, or reprisals against, the person speaking out or his family members.

Civil servants can't speak out, except when Public Service Division explicitly gave its consent with regard to their participation in Our Singapore Conversation on matters not connected with their work. This is rather curious, inasmuch as the dialogue between the people and the Government should be a continuing one, not be a one-off event; or maybe PSD is saying or implying that it is a special event.

Some pensioners — with the possible exception of former permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow — believe that they are not allowed to speak out, even when the subject has no connection with their past work and even long after they have retired.

Even among those who are not prohibited from speaking out on political or social issues, possibly many of them think it is better to be safe than sorry.

After all, Singapore is a small country.

What if (hypothetically) the Government subjects certain people to selective scrutiny, like what the US Internal Revenue Service did to non-profit groups affiliated with the Tea Party?

Not everyone complies with all of the country's laws and regulations all the time.

Not everyone is completely honest when reporting his income or expenses to IRAS. For example, on which side does a person err when apportioning the cost of a good or service between personal and business consumption? Or has he treated a personal consumption of a good or service as a business expense?

Furthermore, companies too may imagine that they may face reprisals, repercussions or bureaucratic road blocks should their employees openly criticise Government policies, especially core policies.

Fear of reprisals may be nothing more than an unfounded perception, but fear is fear, especially when we have much to lose.

The United States
Apparently, the fear of reprisals is not unique to Singapore.

I've already cited the example of IRS (above). Here's another.

When asked whether the London Whale episode (in which a trader in the London-based Chief Investment Office of JP Morgan Chase took such a massive position in the credit market that it caused waves in the sector and ultimately resulted in the bank's losing billions of dollars) caused CEO Jamie Dimon to regret being an outspoken defender of the banking industry, Mr Dimon reportedly said, "I'm an outspoken defender of the truth. Everyone is afraid of retaliation and retribution. We recently had an event with a hundred small bankers here, and 85 per cent of them said they can't challenge the regulation because of the potential retribution. That’s a terrible thing."
 
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Notes

1. New Media Brings Benefits, But Downsides Need To Be Tackled: PM TODAY 23 Nov 2013.

2. Laws Needed In Online Sphere For Accountability, Says Shanmugam TODAY 30 Nov 2013.

3. 122 Minutes With Jamie Dimon New York 12 Aug 2012.

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