THE CARTOON isn't as amusing as it once was. "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," one Web-surfing canine barked to another in that 1993 classic from the New Yorker. Back then, of course, at the innocent dawn of the Internet Age, the idea that we might all be anonymous on the Web promised infinite intellectual freedom. Unfortunately, however, that promise hasn't been realized. Today, too many anonymous Internet users are posting hateful content about their neighbors, classmates and co-workers; today, online media is an increasingly shadowy, vertiginous environment in which it is becoming harder and harder to know other people's real identities.
Those of us who have been flamed by faceless critics in online discussion groups are intimately familiar with the problem. This isn't illegal, of course, because online speech -- anonymous or otherwise -- is protected by both the 1st Amendment and by the Supreme Court's much-cited 1995 McIntyre vs. Ohio Elections Commission ruling protecting anonymous speech. But is today's law adequately protecting us? What happens, for example, when anonymous Internet critics go beyond rude and irremediably blacken the reputations of innocent citizens or cause them harm? Should there be legal consequences?
The most notorious case is certainly the cyber-bullying of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl from a suburb of St. Louis. In 2006, Meier, a troubled, overweight adolescent, became embroiled in an intense, six-week online friendship with "Josh Evans" on My- Space. After "Josh" turned against Megan and posted a comment that "the world would be better place without you," the girl hung herself. Later, when it became clear that the fictitious Josh Evans was actually Lori Drew, a 47-year-old neighbor and mother of a girl with whom Megan Meier had argued, there were calls for a criminal prosecution. But the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department didn't charge Drew; its spokesman said that what she did "might've been rude, it might've been immature, but it wasn't illegal."