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Are Internet trolls the price we pay for free speech?

By JIM ALGAR, United Press International   |   Aug. 25, 2013 at 6:30 AM   |   Comments

Recent attempts to deal with one of the darker sides of the Internet -- so-called Internet "trolls" who hide behind electronic anonymity to post often vile, abusive and inflammatory comments to websites -- raise a troubling question: Will an understandable desire for civil discourse threaten a very American right of free speech?

Internet trolls are a growing and troubling problem.

Anonymous cyberbullies on social networking sites have driven some young people to suicide.

There has been an increase in so-called RIP trolls, who invade memorial websites or Facebook profiles set up by grieving parents and families to make offensive comments about the deceased.

And trolls can be found on almost any chat room, blog or forum, posting inflammatory comments merely to start arguments and disrupt on-topic discussion.

Some Internet sites have begun to attempt to deal with anonymous trolls.

Last week, Arianna Huffington, founder of the influential Huffington Post news aggregator and blog, announced beginning in September site visitors wishing to make a post in the site's comments sections would be required to identify themselves by name.

"Freedom of expression is given to people who stand up for what they're saying and who are not hiding behind anonymity," Huffington told a conference audience in Boston, adding that "trolls have become more and more aggressive and uglier."

Huffington Post already employs a monitoring system intended to remove offensive comments, a common practice on many Internet sites.

Its policy is clearly spelled out online in its user guidelines: "If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it."

Will requiring commenters to post using their real names work to cut down on Internet abuse? When South Korea passed a law mandating all websites with more than 100,000 viewers require real names, it only reduced unwanted comments by 0.9 percent, deterring "casual" trolls but leaving more frequent commenters were unfazed. South Korea eventually ditched the law.

Legal attempts to address Internet abuse -- particularly cyberbullying -- are showing up in the United States.

In Nevada, a new law is giving school administrators a weapon to protect students from Internet abuse.

Under the law it is illegal to share images of bullying online, and school officials will be allowed to use local courts to trace the posting back to their original source or sources.

But while no one approves of cyberbullying, there are those who say the anonymity under which much Internet discussion and discourse take place constitutes a form of protection for the historic and cherished American right to free speech.

When Thomas Paine published Common Sense, the pro-independence pamphlet that helped push America to revolution in 1776, he did so anonymously -- signing it only "written by an Englishman."

If the author of a modern day document with the significant potential for change found in something like "Common Sense" wanted to publish it -- on the Internet, of course -- would a requirement to reveal his or her real name risk it never seeing the (electronic) light of day?

Suffering the unattractive behavior of Internet trolls may be a price we have to pay for the privilege of the right to speak our minds.

The pros and cons of free speech have been debated since the founding of our country in revolution, and that debate continues in the current technological revolution. As it should.

© 2013 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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