To police worried about hackers, con men, and other cyberspace menaces, the ability to conceal one's identity on the Internet is a tool of crime. But to critics and whistleblowers worried about the repercussions of speaking out, online anonymity is a tool of dissent.
In a recent Cato Institute paper (available at www. cato.org/pubs/briefs/bp-054 es.html), Jonathan Wallace, an attorney and software executive, notes that anonymous and pseudonymous speech has a rich pedigree. The 17th-century British writers John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, whose essays on liberty had a strong influence on the Founders, called themselves "Cato" (the think tank's namesake). Thomas Paine's Common Sense was initially attributed simply to "an Englishman." The Federalists and Anti-Federalists debated each other under names such as "Publius" and "Candidus."
The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently recognized that the First Amendment protects the right to speak without revealing one's identity, most recently in a 1995 decision overturning an Ohio ban on anonymous campaign leaflets. In 1997, a federal judge cited that case in overturning a Georgia law that made it a misdemeanor for senders of Internet messages to falsely identify themselves.
Yet opponents of Internet anonymity continue to argue that users should be compelled to give their names, either through a service provider's register or through information incorporated into data packets. They suggest that Web pages and e-mail messages, the contemporary equivalent of colonial pamphlets, do not deserve the same protection as that venerable form. Fortunately, the Supreme Court rejected that position when it overturned sections of the Communications Decency Act in 1997.
Aside from the constitutional problem, Wallace notes, attempts to ban anonymous Internet speech face formidable technical obstacles. "Anonymity and pseudonymity are built into the architecture of the Net," he writes. "Legislators should be particularly wary of laws requiring sweeping changes to communications technology in order to serve speech-restricting goals."