In the debate over online anonymity, there’s no shortage of cases where cruel, hateful people have caused incredible harm. But anonymity is not?and never has been?a prerequisite of cruelty. In fact, remaining anonymous can sometimes protect you from it.
When we talk about the negative side of anonymous Internet use, our thoughts turn to tragic cases like Amanda Todd or Megan Meier. Whether It’s the use of obviously fake names on comment boards, or seemingly real personas on social media sites, there are very real dangers in letting people hide their identities.
So why open the door to that kind of abuse? After all, if You’re not doing anything wrong, there’s no reason to hide behind a fake name. Unless you live in a dictatorship, You’re free to state your opinions. The law protects that right. No one can throw you in prison for disagreeing with someone else’s political views, religious beliefs, or anything else. Your life’s not in danger, so there’s no reason to disguise your identity online. Or is there?
It might surprise you to know that, in Canada, owning what you say online could cost you your job?even if you simply post an opinion your boss happens to disagree with. As the CBC reports, if a non-unionized employee ?makes a comment online that has nothing to do with work, but which might be something the boss just doesn’t like,? there’s nothing stopping the boss from firing her.
All That’s required is sufficient notice, and that the dismissal doesn’t violate any statutes (such as a human rights statute). Unionized workplaces are different; in that case ?workplace rights and obligations are determined by the collective bargaining agreement, rather than common or statutory law.?
So if You’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan and your boss loves the Ottawa Senators, you might have good reason not to comment under your real name on a sports article.
That’s the example David Doorey often uses when teaching material about employment law. He’s an associate professor of Labour and Employment Law at York University’s School of Human Resource Management. As he told the CBC, ?The vast majority of people believe that what they say outside of the workplace is none of the employer’s business. But That’s not true. The employer can always fire you for whatever you say.?
Reasons for being anonymous online go well beyond the workplace. If you’ve left an abusive relationship, you might not want your ex to find out what discussion boards or media sites you visit and comment on. If you live in a small town with a predominant political or religious view, you could face financial or social repercussions if your online opinions disagree with the majority view.
And then there are comments on health articles. Should we really force people to use their real names if they want to share information about their struggles with weight loss or mental health? It’s one thing to reach out to other commenters dealing with very personal issues?to be open and forthright?when you can speak freely and anonymously. Would people be as willing to share, and possibly help, if they knew that an Internet search on their name would turn up such intimate details?
If an anonymous commenter crosses the line into slander or does something else illegal, there are increasingly strong laws allowing authorities to uncover his identity while protecting the victim. In one recent case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a teenage girl could pursue a lawsuit while remaining anonymous. As the National Post reports, the teen was ?allegedly defamed on a bogus Facebook page,? and the judges ?ruled 7-0 that she is entitled to anonymity to avoid her becoming a victim a second time.?
Cases like Amanda Todd’s highlight the very real suffering that online bullying and harassment can cause. But before we insist that online commenters use only their real names, we need to remember that, sometimes, anonymity might just save a life too.
S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).