Parliament should look into how to raise the level of online discourse by making anonymous commenters identify themselves, according to Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro.
“While I believe firmly that the right to free speech must be strongly defended and protected, I also believe it should be backed up by the common decency to stand by one’s words as opposed to hiding behind online anonymity,” the Peterborough MP said in the House of Commons Friday.
“Anonymous online attacks are, in my view, cowardly but they are no less hurtful and represent a caustic scourge that is harming too many in our society.”
Mr. Del Mastro, Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, first brought up the issue on his Facebook page Thursday. Mr. Del Mastro has rarely spoken publicly in recent months, as Elections Canada probes allegations of campaign spending irregularities by his 2008 campaign.
The debate over online speech has taken on another dimension with tragic cases of online bullying, such as that of Amanda Todd. All parties have agreed that bullying is an issue, and both the Liberals and NDP have proposed legislation to address it.
Many websites, including, yes, The Globe and Mail, have struggled with what to do about online commenting. Most news websites either allow anonymous comments or verification through other social media accounts.
But any legislative approach to limiting online speech would be “enormously problematic,” said Michael Geist, a law professor specializing in the Internet and online commerce at the University of Ottawa.
“Del Mastro is right that people often say things online with the veil of anonymity that they would never say if identified or commenting in person,” Mr. Geist said. “We need to work on better online etiquette, but banning anonymous speech isn’t the way to do it.”
He said any federal regulation would likely be open to a constitutional challenge and could have a chilling effect on cases where anonymous communication is particularly important, such as whistleblowers, those suffering from health problems or those in an abusive relationship.
The commenters on Mr. Del Mastro’s Facebook page, for their part, expressed both sides of the debate – presumably using their real names.
“The fact that people can register on comment boards and on-line without having to identify themselves not only protects their identity, but also degrades the quality of news and transfer of information. Me and my family have fallen victim to these people running on aliases, and it would only improve things if people were obliged to use their real identity!” wrote Paul Teleki.
“Completely unenforceable, and some people have very good reasons for requiring anonymity online (whistleblowers, political dissidents, and so on and so forth.) I agree that lots of what we see online is terrible, but this idea is nonsense,” wrote Robert Hailman.
Commenters, we throw it to you. You can tell us below (probably anonymously) or on Facebook (probably with your real name) what you think.