|Week of: |
January 16, 2000
|No More Screen Names on the Internet?
by: F.R. Duplantier
"Throughout the history of this country, pseudonymous and anonymous authors have made a rich contribution to political discourse," declares software executive Johnathan Wallace. "Unfortunately," he laments, "the threats to anonymous Internet discourse have continued to proliferate. . . . U.S. and foreign law enforcement authorities continue to regard anonymity as a threat to public order," says Wallace. "Various pending proposals would encourage, or mandate, changes to the infrastructure of the Net that would eliminate it as a medium for anonymous discourse."
In a report from the Cato Institute, Wallace documents the vital role that anonymous and pseudonymous publications have played in American history. "Controversial and thought-provoking speech," he observes, "has frequently been issued from under the cover of anonymity by writers who feared prosecution or worse if their identities were known." Wallace recalls that John Peter Zenger was arrested in 1735 for publishing pseudonymous essays attacking the English governor of New York. "The jury's acquittal of Zenger," he emphasizes, "helped to end common law prosecutions of American writers and publishers."
Wallace points out that Thomas Paine's famous book, Common Sense, encouraging separation of the colonies from England, was first published pseudonymously, as were the Federalist Papers drafted by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. He notes further that "many writers on the volatile issue of slavery also shielded themselves behind pseudonymous identities."
Wallace fiercely opposes efforts to stifle anonymity on the Internet. "Anonymity and pseudonymity are built into the architecture of the Net," he emphasizes. "Legislators should be particularly wary of laws requiring sweeping changes to communications technology in order to serve speech-restricting goals."
Wallace laments that "many governments refuse to protect their citizens' basic rights, including the right of free speech. Anonymous Internet communications," he contends, "may be the only way to ensure their accountability."
Bayou Bob, Père Robért, Murray Gold, Omar Cayenne, Armand Legg -- these are but a few of the pseudonyms and aliases I've used over the years, for fun and profit. I once struggled to convince a skeptical landlord that all five of the names on my mailbox belonged to me and that the apartment I rented from him was not overrun with squatters. Under one alias or another, I founded an extraordinarily thrifty New Orleans carnival krewe whose costumes consisted of masks made out of paper plates; rewrote (in one day, for a flat fee) the captions for a Simon & Schuster cartoon book so inane that I didn't care to have my real name attached to it; and received an advertising award, in absentia, for a free-lance job that was judged superior to material submitted by my daytime employer. I've used pseudonyms to protect my privacy, to forestall reprisals from cranks and crackpots, and to liberate my imagination from the pedestrian persona of a mild-mannered reporter. When the occasion warrants, I'll use them again -- on the Internet or anywhere else I please. For all you know, I may be using one right now.
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