Attraction of Cyberspace

Many prefer to discuss some topics anonymously

Munich, Germany
November 5, 1999
Sueddeutsche Zeitung

Anonymity on the internet is a valuable commodity. The worldwide data network does, indeed, offer its users numerous platforms from which to publicize their views, as has never been possible before through any previous medium. However, many people will express themselves in certain subject areas only if their true identity stays a secret. And that is what makes cyberspace attractive: in a chatroom for entertaining conversation as well as being able to play an invented character or to be able to openly and honestly express one's views on a delicate subject without having to fear reprisal.

This anonymity, however, has been noticeably threatened.

Sometimes it is due to carelessness: last year an employee of US provider America Online illicitly told a Navy investigator that a customer, who was known from an anonymous user profile to be "gay," was a certain member of the US Navy. The man had to go to court in order to receive an honorable discharge. More and more frequently, though, legal means are being used in the fight against anonymity on the internet; this has been the case for a long time, and not just for pedophilia, illegal duplication of material and fraud. More and more companies in the USA are taking steps against statements which are simply critical in stock market discussion forums. If one of their own employees is behind those statements, he is out of a job. It is relatively easy for the company to find out his name in that they regard his statement to be something like a violation of their own integrity, even if it would never stand a chance in court. Some operators of such platforms, at least in the USA because of the high costs associated with defending oneself in a lawsuit, don't want the trouble and give the company what they want.

People can also be obliged to take action even without a lawsuit. In the USA, for example, the Scientology sect has recently used the new "Digital Millennium Copyright Act" to obtain, for their own purposes, the names of their online critics: in order to simplify the fight against illegal duplication of material on the internet, copyright holders can get the names of alleged violators relatively easily from providers, so the idea goes. All the sect attorneys have to do is claim that the copyrights of their client have been violated. The accusation does not have to be provable. In one actual case, the person is now concerned for his own safety. Although it cannot be allowed that anonymity is misused to protect illicit conduct - and there is enough of that going on - isn't the internet also worth a certain amount of protection as a platform from which anyone, without fear of reprisal, can speak his mind? Protection of personal data is also part of the issue here. A bottom line will not be simple to find.

David Rosenthal