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Our New Faceless Monsters : With the Wiring of America, It's Become Easier to Practice Terror and Nastiness Cloaked in a Sinister Anonymity. Where's This New Anonymous America Headed?

August 27, 1995|Michael D'Antonio | Michael D'Antonio's last article for the magazine examined the social problems of boys and young men. His next book, "Devouring Our Young," will be published by Crown early next year.

TO: Cindy.

SUBJECT: Pen Pal

"Hi, Cindy. You sound sexy. How long is your hair?"

--Anonymous Internet message sent to the author's 13-year-old daughter.

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In another time, a 13-year-old girl who ran away from her home in small Kentucky town might have been sought at a friend's house or with a cousin in the next town. The police would have knocked on a few doors. Her picture might have been posted around town. But Tara Noble left home in the age of the Internet. She was lured by an anonymous entity from cyberspace, a citizen of a computer network who identified himself only as George from California.

Tara turned up safe in Los Angeles, but not until she had terrified her parents, baffled authorities and made headlines across the country. Her case brought national attention to the dangers of a technology that brings people together in a faceless new realm where identity is obscured and secrecy is guaranteed. Other children have been raped and molested by anonymous adult computer contacts who lured them into real world encounters.

Such cases are forcing society to deal with some of the more troubling aspects of technology and human nature. In June, the state of Connecticut made harrassment-by-computer a crime. At the same time, the U.S. Senate moved to restrict sexually explicit message on the Internet. These actions have ignited a classical debate about free speech and censorship. But in the national discussion of censorship and rights, little has been said about the dark force--a condition, really--that lies behind Tara Noble's disappearance and the attacks on other children. All of these troubles, along with new forms of extortion and hatemongering, have been made possible because technology shelters predators in the shadows of a new and powerful form of anonymity.

Something in anonymity brings out the worst in humanity. Just ask any 13-year-old girl who has tried to find an Internet pen pal. She may as well navigate a red-light district after dark. Faceless come-ons, cons and solicitations are everywhere. All this is made possible by technologies that have expanded the power and the reach of anonymity. For the first time in human history, almost anyone can instantly shed his identity and take on a new one, becoming a woman or a man, a sinner or a saint. Anything and everything is possible in the ether.

"Unfortunately, what comes out of a lot of people is their absolute worst," says Clifford Stoll, author of "Silicon Snake Oil," a critique of the computer age. An astronomer and computer-security expert, Stoll began using the Internet in the 1970s, long before the world in general knew that it existed. He has watched, with dismay, as anonymity has ruined the cyberneighborhood. "The more anonymous the communication, the nastier it is," Stoll says. "With technology and the way we live today--in insulated suburbs and cities--we don't know each other by our faces any more. We can evade responsibility for each other and for our own actions. We can even escape our own humanity."

Of course, anonymity has a brighter side. It is vital to political dissent, especially when repression shackles free speech. But truly meaningful anonymous speech is rare in America today because there is virtually no legal barrier to open expression. Instead, anonymous speech is associated with the crank and the exhibitionist. Anonymous e-mail threats are sent to the White House. An unnamed hacker uses the Internet to distribute a purported transcript of the horrifying last moments of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger. Others spread damning rumors about technology companies and their products. Every day, anonymous hate flows on the Information Superhighway. Every day, anonymous sexual predators harass both children and adults.

Computer-based anonymity is just one corner of an expanding quarter of society where identities are blurred and the potential for mischief abounds. This place--call it Anonymous America--is a media landscape that includes phone-sex lines, fax machines, unregulated broadcast stations and even talk radio. The technology that guarantees entry to this faceless world also provides unprecedented access to others. There are no gatekeepers, no police, no editors or publishers in Anonymous America. Here, every citizen can distribute her views--confessions, lies, truth and fiction--to a single person or a community of millions. In ways that were never possible before, we are, almost casually, giving up our names, histories and identifying features to embrace anonymity. And that choice may be changing the very nature of political speech, human identity and our notion of the self.

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