Rhodri Marsden: Is it wrong to hide behind an alternative online identity?

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

I have an alter-ego named Geoff who occasionally pops up on various online forums. He has strongly-held views, a colourful vocabulary and an explosive temper; racists, crusading libertarians and swivel-eyed conspiracy theorists all get it in the neck from Geoff. His heart's in the right place but, to be honest, you probably wouldn't want to invite him to your wedding.

Geoff provides me with a handy safety valve. While I'm probably a coward for lurking in his shadow while he has a pop at someone, the people he ends up confronting give as good as they get, and in any case they hide behind equally abstruse pseudonyms such as Expat-Brit or ExposeTheTruth. But while online anonymity or pseudonymity is useful – indeed, many privacy campaigners would deem it essential for keeping our personal information safe – it can be badly abused. People can rarely be held to account for the things their alter-egos say, and as a result they're prone to go too far. The tragic case of Missouri teenager Megan Meier, who was driven to suicide by messages posted by a 50-year old woman posing as a teenage boy, is an extreme example. But for every case like this, there are several thousand where people – of all ages – experience colossal distress after receiving abuse (or, worse, bullying) from mysterious sources.

As ever, existing laws are proving too blunt to deal with online life. The woman in the Meier case could only be prosecuted for posing as a teenager – a contravention of the terms of service of the website she used to post the messages – rather than any responsibility she might have for Meier's death. This is part of the reason that the case is on the brink of collapse; the judge is clearly wary of setting a dangerous precedent that might prevent people creating alternative online identities for perfectly understandable reasons. And various proposals to curtail freedom to criticise or make fun of others are also fraught with problems.

One American student, Katherine Evans, continues to campaign to have her suspension from school for "cyberbullying" erased from her record – a suspension that resulted simply from her choosing to express her dislike of a particular teacher on Facebook rather than the school cafeteria. While the internet has caused many of us to develop incredibly thick skins, it's worth remembering that some people are far more sensitive, and our remarks could easily come back to haunt us. In fact, it's probably worth me reminding Geoff.





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