Anonymity fuels internet hooliganism. How do we guard ourselves?

I'm all for free speech and against attempts to gag dissent. I do understand why censorship is often frowned upon. And how self-regulation has emerged as the new catchphrase. Yes, it's almost impossible to screen every tweet or status update. But when you can easily sign up on social networking sites without revealing your identity and get cracking by posing as someone else or posting ridiculously incorrect or misleading information about yourself, or rude and even defamatory comments about others, how can you expect a semblance of personal accountability?

The tenor of anonymous tweets would make even the most liberal crusaders for free speech think twice about demanding the decriminalisation of defamation. There is intolerance for ‘the other view', vulgarity and vituperation in 140 characters. There is mob psychology at play. And there is uncontrolled, apparently unmonitored rudeness on what is meant to be a wonderful platform to “find out what's happening about people and organisations you care about.” When Kapil Sibal tried to demand censorship of some sort, the move was opposed by many in the virtual world because it probably came across as a defence of politicians scared to have their dirty linen washed online.

What recourse does a user who has been defamed have? Facebook has options to report abusive comments or tags. Twitter too has a few complaint clauses couched in legalese under its terms of service. But if you have to sue someone, you need to first establish their identity and source an address for communication of a legal notice or court summons. How do you do that with the social media? Twitter claims it is not obliged to divulge IP addresses that originate from non-law-enforcement agencies outside the US. Even if you complain to the Cyber Crime Cell, you need a mutual legal assistance treaty or a letter rogatory or a subpoena from a Court in California to get a user's identification data. Why can't specific abusive terms be blocked or at least monitored on social media platforms? Why can't they consider insisting on some proof of identity like a mobile number, to which a code can be sent as a step to register an account?

Don't we all get friend requests from strangers on Facebook who have their kindergarten photo or a film star's grab or a dog or monkey as their profile picture? Click on the Info button and get a snub – “The user does not share this info with everyone.” Most recipients of such friend requests from strangers look for mutual friends and confirm ‘friendship' if there is enough common ground. But that's hardly a precaution as many accept friends to boost their tally. Of course, there are privacy settings but how many use them effectively? It takes a few good Samaritans to post tips for others to see. The trick is to check if their wall posts are decent enough and if their albums contain genuine pictures that don't look like they have been sourced from the net.

Fake profiles, especially for public figures, have become such a nuisance that genuine users are inconvenienced. For instance, the twitter ID ‘Rajdeep Sardesai' is taken. The original Rajdeep has had to create one in true Olympic-list style with ‘Sardesai Rajdeep'. Here, the nature of the tweets, scoops or programming information, are usually enough to distinguish a real celebrity from an impostor.

I know of several people who use Facebook to share personal details and views and Twitter for their pearls of wisdom on the goings on in the country. Today, newsmakers don't need to send a press release or hold a media conference. They can get their message across (without the bother of ‘inconvenient' questions). And in a few seconds. In most newsrooms, Twitter is slowly overtaking even news wires as a source of information. When this medium is going to occupy such an important role in our lives, users must be entitled to higher standards of reliability and safety. For starters, let the social-media moguls work to ensure better safeguards against misuse. And let users start reading the terms of service before clicking on the ‘I Agree' button.

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