I did a Commonwealth Club debate with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on Thursday. As I told Jimmy, I think Wikipedia has a lot of promise, but is marred by two fatal flaws: 1) Its failure to economically reward Wikipedian contributors; 2) The anonymity of these contributors. It's the anonymity of Wikipedian contributors which most disturbs me. Given that information is never absolute nor completely value free, I always want to know the identity of its author. This fetish with anonymity, then, is the main reason why Wikipedia is such a flawed intellectual experiment. As I implored Jimmy Wales on Thursday, Wikipedia needs to reveal the real identity of its contributors. Then -- and only then -- will it become a truly credible information resource.
But the curse of online anonymity goes well beyond Wikipedia. As I argue in an op-ed in today's Los Angeles Times entitled "Douse the Online Flamers", our legal establishment needs to re-examine some of its philosophical assumptions around the principle of online anonymity. My argument, however, is moral rather than legal. I want to see online anonymous bullies and sadists accountable for their actions. I want them to be punished -- fined or even imprisoned -- as a consequence of their immoral actions. "Douse the Online Flamers" was inspired by a brilliant article on the Yale Law School case in the New York Law Journal by Jim Goodale, former New York Times vice-chairman and host of the essential Digital Age tv show. As the lawyer who represented The Times in the Pentagon Papers case, Goodale is also one the country's leading First Amendment lawyers -- and when attorneys as experienced and erudite as Jim Goodale begin to question the law's leniency toward online anonymity, we all need to take note. Jim also introduced me to a partner at Debevoise and Plimpton, Jeff Cunard, an expert on online anonymity and the law, who very patiently answered all my dumb questions. So thanks Jim and Jeff. I couldn't have written my op-ed without you.
It goes without saying, of course, that "Douse the Online Flamers" reflects neither the views nor the wisdom of either Jim Goodale or Jeff Cunard. I'm totally accountable -- it's all the work of A.J. Keen.