By Matthew Pate
Enshrined within the Sixth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution is the right to confront one’s accusers in a criminal trial. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him…” This is a cornerstone of American justice and the basic idea goes back centuries through English Common Law and ancient Rome.
While a necessary part of criminal justice, the right to confront one’s accusers needs not extend to all spheres of public life. If New York Assemblyman Jim Conte (R) has his way, the right to make anonymous comments on social media and other internet sites will vanish.
Some see the bill known as the Internet Protection Act (IPA) as a potentially important tool to fight cyberbullying. That’s a laudable goal, but wrenching back the cloak of anonymity to combat cyberbullying is tantamount to killing ants with a hammer.
Unfortunately, even as hammers go, this one isn’t all that great.
According to a statement issued by Conte, “With more and more people relying on social media and the Internet to communicate and gather information, it is imperative that the legislature put into place some type of safeguard to prevent people from using the Internet’s cloak of anonymity to bully our children and make false accusations against local businesses and elected officials.”
Instantly we’ve morphed from protecting children to defending businesses and local officials. It’s a dark day politically when bullied children become grist for the cynical mill of reactionary politics. Furthermore, it betrays the fact that laws already exist that permit people to learn the identities of anonymous posters if they have been victims of a crime. We can also file civil suits —- through which we can ascertain identity from Internet service providers as part of legal discovery.
As if shenanigans in the New York legislature weren’t enough, the U. S. Congress is now fighting its own war of words. Tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act last week by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is a bill to amend the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 to “authorize the domestic dissemination of information and material about the United States intended primarily for foreign audiences, and for other purposes.” The bill, H.R.5736, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012, strikes down the prohibition on public diplomacy material (i.e. government propaganda) from being available domestically to people within the United States. In other words, Smith-Mundt 2012 will overturn a 63-year ban and make it possible for the government to fund the dissemination of propaganda directed at American citizens.
Some commentators have described this bill as a Trojan Horse. It’s more like a Trojan Horse full of infectious paranoia that we get to pay for and then blindly usher into our homes.
The narrow consequentialism that undergirds policy of this kind is nothing new. The trumpet of moral objectives is never loud enough to drown out the cry of immoral means. Even so, men like Smith, Thornberry and Conte purse their lips and blow hard into horns of Machiavellian logic.
Nietzsche once observed, “Against an enemy — How good bad music and bad reasons sound when one marches against an enemy!”
Repeat the lie often enough and it magically becomes true.
Nobody wants their child to be bullied; and no ethical parent would tolerate their child as the bully, especially if he/she hid behind a shield of anonymity. Similarly, no moral person wants to give terrorism a toehold in America or anywhere else. Terrorism is often its own coward’s cloak of invisibility.
As to the first matter, the real issue is poor parenting. Bullies aren’t born. They are raised. We already have laws fit to address cyberbullying. Where deficits exist, clumsy political subterfuge offers no relief.
Regarding the second, giving the government freer reign to lie or operate opaquely pushes government closer to becoming the thing we hate — despots who tell the population what to think.
Yes, we have problems on the electronic frontier, but bills like these hold greater dangers than anything they propose to fight.
Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff, Ark. Contact him at email@example.com