Many people don't want the things they say online to be connected with their offline identities. They may be concerned about political or economic retribution, harassment, or even threats to their lives. Whistleblowers report news that companies and governments would prefer to suppress; human rights workers struggle against repressive governments; parents try to create a safe way for children to explore; victims of domestic violence attempt to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow.
Instead of using their true names to communicate, these people choose to speak using pseudonyms (assumed names) or anonymously (no name at all). For these individuals and the organizations that support them, secure anonymity is critical. It may literally save lives.
Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that the right to anonymous free speech is protected by the First Amendment. A much-cited 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission reads:
Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
The tradition of anonymous speech is older than the United States. Founders Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius," and "the Federal Farmer" spoke up in rebuttal. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized rights to speak anonymously derived from the First Amendment.
The right to anonymous speech is also protected well beyond the printed page. Thus, in 2002, the Supreme Court struck down a law requiring proselytizers to register their true names with the Mayor's office before going door-to-door.
These long-standing rights to anonymity and the protections it affords are critically important for the Internet. As the Supreme Court has recognized, the Internet offers a new and powerful democratic forum in which anyone can become a "pamphleteer" or "a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has been involved in the fight to protect the rights of anonymous speakers online. As one court observed, in a case handled by EFF along with the ACLU of Washington, "[T]he free exchange of ideas on the Internet is driven in large part by the ability of Internet users to communicate anonymously."
We've challenged many efforts to impede anonymous communication, both in the courts or the legislatures. We also previously provided financial support to the developers of Tor, an anonymous Internet communications system. By combining legal and policy work with technical tools, we hope to maintain the Internet's ability to serve as a vehicle for free expression.
These cases all involve defending people's right to remain anonymous when they post comments on message boards, as well as making sure that anonymous speakers' due process rights are respected.
California AB 1143
This legislation was introduced in California by Assemblymember Joe Simitian and was aimed at ensuring that individuals whose identities are sought from their ISPs in California state lawsuits are given notice and an opportunity to protect their privacy before their identities are revealed.
HR 3754 "Fraudulent Online Identity Sanctions Act" [PDF]
This bill would amend the U.S. Criminal Code, Trademark Act, and Copyright Act to create a presumption that inaccurately registered WHOIS data represents evidence of malicious intent. Sections 2 and 3 of the bill would make violations of copyright or trademark in conjunction with an inaccurately registered domain "willful," carrying the highest penalties, even if the activity were otherwise innocent.