A push to outlaw anonymous commenters in New York gets big eye-roll from digital media

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One might have expected the news that several Republican state lawmakers in New York want to pass a law essentially banning anonymous comments on the web to be met with outrage.

But the reaction from New York's digital-media proprietors seems to be more of a collective eye-roll.

"This is a misguided idea that indicates a lack of understanding of not only the essence of the web but also the principles of the First Amendment," said Gaby Darbyshire, the attorney and chief operating officer for Gawker Media. "I don't believe it will come to anything."

"This legislation is going nowhere," said Andrew Rasiej, chair of the NY Tech Meetup and founder of Personal Democracy Forum (and an adviser to Capital). "Its not OK anymore for politicians not to know how the Internet works. The sponsors of these bills basically self painted the word 'dinosaur' on their backs with this one."

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The legislation, which has been proposed both in the State Assembly and Senate, would require New York-based websites such as blogs and the online hubs of newspapers and other media outlets to “remove any comments posted on his or her website by an anonymous poster unless such anonymous poster agrees to attach his or her name to the post.”

“This statute would essentially destroy the ability to speak anonymously online on sites in New York,” an attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology told Wired, which first reported the news on Wednesday.

Despite the obvious constitutional implications, the co-sponsors of the Internet Protection Act have described the legislation not so much as an assault on free speech and the open web, but more as a safeguard for people—say, politicians—who sometimes find themselves the victims of anonymous online invective.

"Too often, online bullies hide behind their anonymity as they inflict pain," wrote Republican Assemblyman Jim Conte on the website LIPolitics.com earlier this month. "My legislation turns the spotlight on cyber-bullies by forcing them to reveal their identity or have their post removed. Once a bully is identified, steps can be taken to end the harassment. Bullying is no laughing matter."

But apparently, Conte's proposed legislation is.

"It's so laughable, nobody would take it seriously," said Rasiej, which is precisely why he doesn't foresee any sort of SOPA/PIPA-style backlash from New York's digital community: "Getting the whole community to come out against it would require people thinking this has a chance of passage."

Several editors of websites whose comment sections would theoretically be affected didn't seem to be sweating it, either.

"Every great once in a while, someone comes up with some proposal that's at the same time flagrantly anti-American, embarrassing and that would make the world a better place," said The Awl's Choire Sicha. "Oh well. In this case, the 'embarrassing' is winning out though—Republicans disavow Bill of Rights, film at 11! So many LOLs."

Elizabeth Spiers, editor-in-chief of The New York Observer, agreed with the authors of the legislation that anonymous commenting is "cowardly," a way for people to "enjoy shooting spitballs without taking responsibility for it." 

"But I would never suggest that other people should be stopped from doing it," she said. "And there are plenty of legitimate reasons to use anonymity—professional liability in some cases, fear of undeserved reprisals, and so on. In all of these scenarios, I don't see any benefit to censoring something simply because the author is anonymous. It's an arbitrary criterion, and even the cowardly spitballers should be protected from that."

BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, meanwhile, said that law enforcement could "get better at prosecuting real anonymous stalking and bullying online." But he pointed out the irony of "powerful politicians" calling for a curb on these types of comments.

"There's nobody who should have fewer protections from anonymous speech," he said.