Spurred on by the New York Times, the Sneak ADtackniks have been on the nym wars lately like Brown on Williamson (see here and here).

Now come the Times Sunday Review review of the topic:

Sunday Dialogue: Anonymity and Incivility on the Internet

Readers debate the benefits and drawbacks of requiring real names in online postings.

The Letter

To the Editor:

Facebook has 800 million users who are required to use their real names (“Naming Names: Rushdie Wins Facebook Fight,” front page, Nov. 15), and, as a result, are identified with and accountable for what they post. It is time to consider Facebook’s real-name policy as an Internet norm because online identification demonstrably leads to accountability and promotes civility.

People who are able to post anonymously (or pseudonymously) are far more likely to say awful things, sometimes with awful consequences, such as the suicides of cyberbullied young people. The abuse extends to hate-filled and inflammatory comments appended to the online versions of newspaper articles — comments that hijack legitimate discussions of current events and discourage people from participating.

Anonymity also facilitates the posting of anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic content across the Web.

To be sure, there is value in someone being able to use the Internet without being identified. Online privacy is a major issue today. And in the United States, we have had a great tradition of anonymous political speech. Elsewhere, dissidents in oppressive regimes have felt free to speak up precisely because they believe (perhaps erroneously) that they cannot be identified.

This is not a matter for government, given the strictures of the First Amendment. But it is time for Internet intermediaries voluntarily to consider requiring either the use of real names (or registration with the online service) in circumstances, such as the comments section for news articles, where the benefits of anonymous posting are outweighed by the need for greater online civility.

There is no bright-line test, but Internet sites permitting user-generated postings can make a judgment that in some instances the use of real names benefits society.

Washington, Nov. 20, 2011

The writer is an Internet and privacy attorney and leads the Internet Task Force of the Anti-Defamation League.

Check out the reader reaction.

Excellent debate.

John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
John R. Carroll has 302 post(s) on Sneak Adtack