Cyber Anonymity and Free Speech – A Socio-Legal Conundrum
September 26, 2021
Cyberspace is an umbrella term for the medium of interaction between people online. The entire concept of Cyber Space is that anyone with access to the internet and an interest in any topic is free to leave advice, comments, opinions, or remarks on aspects or posts concerning that topic. Take Twitter, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement was immensely popular in the United States in early to mid-2020. During this time, citizens from India too posted and tweeted on Twitter against the oppression of African American citizens despite it having no effect on their lives in India.
Cyberspace also allows the commenter to maintain a strong veil of anonymity. If an individual chooses to, they can even mask their I.P address through the use of VPNs. This ability of anonymity has caused the most vocal netizens to often shroud themselves behind a veil of anonymity while presenting opinions, popular and unpopular. With the explosive popularity of sites such as Twitter and Instagram and the exponential increase in the number of internet users daily, cyber anonymity has become quite embedded when one uses the term cyber persona where the user almost always has an option to be anonymous or publically known.
Freedom of Speech too, a democratically guaranteed right in most progressive societies has come under considerable scrutiny in the wake of increasing trolls and misleading information, problematic comments, and the like. This veil of cyber anonymity that protects those online from identification often leaves their victims helpless and without justice. To better combat this, there have been movements on the restriction on the freedom and anonymity offered to the users of this platform by countries developed and developing alike.
Freedom of Speech
Perhaps one of the most basic fundamental rights in a democratic State is the right to Freedom of Speech. It is also often the hardest to observe violations to this right as the State confidently suppresses it under terms such as seditious and fake. The Indian State has issued arrest warrants against popular comedians and other figures of significance under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which provides for the act of Sedition and the punishment thereof. Democratic countries such as India recognize and foster the right to free speech and the right to privacy.
These two rights can sometimes go hand in hand such as the right to anonymous speech or the right to remain publicly silent (Like many of our politicians do when they are faced with probing questions). Despite the right to free speech is fundamental to the Indian state, there have to be reasonable restrictions, as with any right. With the popularisation of Internet media, it is now necessary, more than ever before, to clearly define the boundaries of free speech and the right to privacy that accompanies that speech and expression.
Issues arising out of Free Online Speech
Internet websites and platforms offer many ways to make a statement or present an opinion. These can be through the upload of pictures, videos, reels, vines, or any other medium that is followed and can be accessed by the public at large. With this ease of communication comes a new set of challenges that are alien to the legal system of many countries. Further, comments and opinions made by a user on a social platform never disappear. They can always be traced and tracked to defame, bully or blackmail the user in the future, another issue our legal system is unable to effectively combat. Much of this problem comes from the right to privacy being separate but connected to the right to free speech.
A user is allowed under circumstances that may be in the public or national interest, to divulge the information of another user publically with no liability. National interest and public interest are very loosely defined aspects of the current laws surrounding defamation and sedition and are hence often abused by the participants of that platform to their advantage. Pictures, where there is more than one individual (the individual making the post), are often victims of targeted trolling due to their association with the individual that is making the post. There are also cases where local landmarks in pictures or videos have been identified and the individual has been mobbed, assaulted or dozens of people have rushed to meet them after a post.
Tweets and other comments made by certain people of significance have caused riots, revolts, and sometimes even jeopardized the security of the State. In light of this, one may argue that it is safer to remain anonymous on the internet and to never divulge personal or private information in any form. This argument too is weak as the various internet platforms often mine so much user data that it takes the most technologically advanced user to effectively be truly anonymous. Poorly monitored requirements for the creation of accounts on such websites to encourage this behavior as a person can simultaneously hold multiple accounts on the same platform, all of which have the same features and abilities making it nearly impossible to track down trolls and ban them for good.
Benefits of Cyber Anonymity
While it is true that a poorly constructed legal recourse system does cause significant issues when it comes to the restriction of free speech and anonymous users, it does offer quite a few benefits to the users of these platforms. Most notably, an individual is not required to furnish all their details when they register and use an online account to present their opinions, statements, or anything of the sort. Yes, indeed, websites like Twitter and Instagram are increasingly hoarding user data, it is not yet compulsory for a person to use their real name, their official Email ID, allow access to their camera, or microphone or make public their location to these platforms.
These benefits do allow the newly introduced and the technologically challenged to retain some control over how much information they make available publically. In addition to this, they also allow users to safely offer opinions that the State may consider against public policy. Such as the LGBTQIA activists before the decriminalization of Article 377. Cyber anonymity also allows users to interact and communicate with a wide array of people without actually revealing their identity to anyone. Platforms like Discord are prime examples of these where you can interact using exclusively your username and the app does not need access to any other features or functions to offer users the complete experience.
Threat to Free Speech and Cyber Anonymity
It is unfortunate that due to the massive influx of people and the perceivable problematic behavior of participants in such social media platforms, there is a significant governmental push to Crackdown on the abuse that is rampant in social media and other online platforms through the introduction of laws that make cyber anonymity increasingly difficult. These malicious actions by a few individuals will be the eventual cause of increased censorship and mandatory information being provided to access online platforms. What this means for freedom of speech is that it will invariably be further restricted and restrained, blurring the boundaries between state-friendly and unfriendly even further.
There is an urgent need for strong and well-defined legal intervention. This can be done through the introduction of laws and acts that recognize, foster, and encourage responsible online behavior while discouraging and punishing problematic behavior. There must be a sacrifice on the part of the people for privacy and free speech do not agree with each other. It becomes far too easy for malignant individuals to wreak havoc under the cover of remaining anonymous. Due to this, it became difficult for the State to control the spread of information (genuinely undesirable) across borders and among people. If there is a sacrifice of anonymity, then free speech may be able to prosper.
Cyberspace has many opportunities for those that wish to participate in the exchange between various ideologies, countries, and locations. These exchanges can include wisdom, knowledge, culture, opinions, and the like. Cyber anonymity coupled with free speech has made it possible for the exchange of ideas through platforms such as Twitter common and easily accessible. It is through this explosion of popularity that the millions of users we are familiar with today arrived on these platforms. With them came the hundreds of thousands of trolls and other malicious users.
It is due to these users that the reputation of online platforms such as Twitter and Instagram is seen as toxic and problematic. It is due to these users that governments across the world are hurrying to implement stronger anti-privacy laws and restrict the freedom of speech found commonly on these platforms. There is an urgent need for stronger laws that support both responsible speech and the privacy of users of these platforms to strengthen the democratic fabric of Indian and all other countries.