in praise of the comment box

The comment box has long been a mainstay of American political discourse, one that is quickly leaving us. We should find a substitute for in, in the digital world we’re building. I brook no nostalgia about some pieces of dead trees nailed to form a slotted box, to accepted yet more slivers of dead tree conveying an opinion. It served (very roughly) a purpose similar to public mailboxes.

A place where one is entitled to exercise free speech without proof of identity.

The right to vote is not the right to bitch. Voting is anonymous, and everyone doing it has exactly the same voice… regardless of how they yell away from the polling center. It’s never about fine-grained choice, and no one really knows why anyone else made their choice. It’s like underwear in the free speech world. Everyone has it in their own style, yet inform very few people about it. Fewer want it seen or published, regardless of how common their type might be.

In the world outside courthouses, we can say what we want. Regardless of whether we must give it to them, others may demand to know our identity before they will take us seriously. It can be damning evidence to not sign one’s name beside one’s cause. It might be considered weak or at least inexcusably impolite, perhaps a sign that one is not speaking truthfully with conviction. So the generally-admitted right to bitch may have one large caveat. Free speech places few demands upon the audience, by itself. That’s why we have far more than just the right to free speech when addressing our government.

Signing our name to our complaint might be a very bad idea, however.

It’s pointless to requiring a signed complaint of whistleblowers: we’ve learned that the people we want making complaints won’t do so when it seems unsafe for them. We want people making complaints to have common sense. We want the logical people who have a heart to be changing things. As a result, anonymity may be the only power that a specific complainant possesses. It may be the only power they can usefully wield.

We know this and it’s woven into our society. There’s the ever-present suggestion box. Or the notion that one doesn’t need to give up their identity to return things. Or standardized tests that are graded without looking at someone’s name or identifying information. Or the fact that race is an optional requirement (nevermind that opting out labels one as a white male, a different discussion) on many forms. Or that so few things require a picture ID, even though nearly every adult citizen possesses a government-issued picture ID. Or that cash is always accepted, and accepted without identification for most things. Or that we consider it an encroachment of our rights (even if justified) to surrender our ID to government officials.

The basic right to free speech does not include giving up one’s identity, as a matter of course. That’s to protect the speaker, and allows the speaker to effectively voice complaints about government and society without punishment. It’s how citizens enforce the right to free speech when it is jeopardized.

On the internet, in general, it is not very difficult for a technically knowledgeable person to discover someone’s identity (or at least specific location down to the keyboard). The internet uses the equivalent of postcards with a return address to send all messages, only the government does not guarantee their sanctity as well as the postal service protects first-class mail. There are many instances documented of government intrusion, it’s not just a conspiracy theory.

But that information must be sought out. It does not exist as a license plate that other laymen on the internet can peruse as they see fit. Just like in the physical world where people must trust others to allow their rights to continue. The pollster handing out ballots reads names, even if there are watchful eyes… but it’s questionable whether ID is required so much as a way to prevent double-voting. Collusion would negate the right to an anonymous vote. It’s been alleged to happen in nearly every US Presidential election. The suggestion box and physical bulletin board could be monitored, and we know that. The business could ask to see an ID when not legally required. Our participation in society might require we “voluntarily” give up some identifying information.

There are many places where we give up our identity, the most immediately obvious being facebook. Sure, one can not give up one’s identity, but it’s against Facebook’s terms of usage. The Same with services like Twitter and Disqus (which exists solely for that purpose). Anything said while logged into one of those sites (including on other sites) is tagged with our identity. The suggestion box on the internet usually requires the equivalent of a picture ID. Imagine forking over an ID before going to customer service to make a simple complaint like “hey, your AC is broken”. Annoying, right? Now imagine need to do so before posting to college corkboards or to even discuss a company with other people. Kinda more than just annoying, it gets directly in the way of freely voicing an opinion without fear of retribution. Imagine not being able to talk about the news or protesting a business’ practices without giving them your ID. Kinda squelches out any chance that you might do so, to most people. With good reason.

The bill of rights exists to protect us from government. But the principles it applies come from American society. The idea of everyone contributing to volunteer efforts as they see fit. The right to speak in public while ignoring people who say to shut up. Some might say no one has a right to tell someone else to shut up, when looking around society outside government. We have the legally protected right to not be discriminated against based on race, religion, etc. at a public business. Leaders are expected to step down and be replaced periodically. We have the right to peacefully defend ourselves, with restrictions no different when they are about government. The press shouldn’t be restricted by bias from above; doing so is considered corrupt and perhaps fraudulent. No one can tell an adult they can’t drink in their own home, as the rule not exception. We have exceptions to all of these. I’d argue that the fact we consider them ‘exceptions’ shows us the general rule prevails most of the time. Most rights have some limits and exceptions.

The first response objections I usually get in return are telling: the right to vote is no long relavent, for some reason. Perhaps because the right to vote is purely held once a year or so, inside a box that the government invents for citizens as the limits of their acceptable opinion. As if a democracy somehow lives without a constant, living, influence. It exists and understands the will of the people, regardless of their understanding or level of acknowledged participation.

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