These days, it’s easy to say almost anything on the Internet. But the ethics of saying what one wants wherever one wants online becomes unclear in instances where hurtful, insensitive comments are made. The 1st Amendment and free speech are often cited to defend one’s right to say whatever they want. Yet, there have been major concerns regarding the extent to which individual rights should be protected on the internet. So far, little consensus has been reached regarding the issue of toxic internet speech.
Today, anonymity has become a great concern as people can say what they want and get away without consequences. Now, the internet is infamous for its high levels of toxicity—trolling, hurtful mockery, hatred, and other unacceptable behavior. When internet users become victims of insensitive comments made by others, a logical response would be to stay away from places on the internet that offend them. But is it unfair to exclude those who are unfairly ridiculed on the internet? Some would say no, and others would justifiably say yes, it is unfair that some users feel excluded.
A question that now always needs to be asked is: what level of harassment qualifies as grounds for disciplinary action by law enforcement or the community itself? Although online forums and other public virtual spaces have done a tremendous job of monitoring their users and offering options to report users, not every space is censored by moderators and site administrators. While some internet platforms do not promise complete anonymity, there is always a possibility to create fake profiles or adjust one’s privacy settings to avoid consequences from making derogatory statements. Although anonymity can encourage bad behaviors, there are clear benefits to promising anonymity to internet users.
Anonymity offers much-desired privacy for users and prevention of unwanted access (by others) to personally identifiable information. This is particularly the case from malicious hackers and predators who can access personally identifiable information and exploit their victims. Therefore, privacy is very important. Yet, the internet cannot be a place that lacks accountability just because privacy is supposed to be guaranteed. As implied earlier, where anonymity is guaranteed, chaos ensues.
What then becomes the ideal way to enforce more civility and etiquette on the internet? Should the government universalize a conduct code and ethical standards that must be enforced by all internet users? Should the government have the right to investigate “anonymous” internet profiles and accounts when undesirable comments are made by these users? Or should no measures taken to punish and publicize one’s derogatory speech be permitted through the protection of the 1st Amendment. These are some questions that need to be addressed thoroughly before a solution can be discovered. Yet, the point is that online anonymity, despite its legality, enables a toxic environment to dominate the internet, which is unacceptable and disappointing.
In the next article, there will be a continuation of the discussion on online free speech rights and the lack of civility in conversations on the internet.