The Nameless Horror

Joe Konrath's new Amazon petition

Todd Barselow and Anne Rice’s petition to do away with “anonymity” (a very loosely used word) on Amazon reviews and replace it with users’ (presumably CC-) verified identities causes consternation for Joe Konrath:

This slippery slope means there is no place to draw the line. If you demand something be deleted from a forum because it offends you, where does that end? Amazon doesn’t allow hate speech or threats. But being critical and mean-spirited, even anonymously, has to be protected. If it isn’t, watch how quickly you get hauled off to jail for criticizing a government, or a law. In countries without free speech, anonymity is the only way to voice opinions.

If everywhere public voices mingle is policed, some good voices will be silenced, good people will mingle less, and trolls will whine about their rights–and they may have a point because of that annoying due process/freedom of speech/Constitution thing.

Everyone repeat after me: “freedom of speech” does not apply to private property. I can’t rock up at your house, stand on your lawn, and yell over and over and over again, “The family who live here are dicks!” without the cops being called and finding myself arrested for being a jerk. And quite rightly too. The laws that prevent me from doing that freely have been in place for many, many years without causing the destruction of democratic society.

(I may not even be able to do it from the safety of the public street if the volume of my constitutionally-protected speech is sufficient to breach public nuisance laws, which also haven’t caused a collapse in civil liberties.)

Amazon is not the public street. It is private property. As is every single website on the internet. Every time you make a free speech argument in relation to user discussion on a website, Jesus kills a civil liberties lawyer.

There should, in any case, always be better arguments than that. (One of which Joe makes, for example: that “verified user identity” is a laughable concept in a world of disposable credit cards.)

FWIW, I think this petition is frankly silly, and not just because it’s a petition and we all know how well they work. User ID is too easy to fake, I’m not sure what anyone hopes to gain from the exercise, especially given how broken the review system is anyway (“I have not bought this product nor has it been released yet, but I know it’s going to be shit on a stick. ONE STAR!!!”), and while it’s a trivial matter for them to accomplish (and has indeed already happened accidentally on at least one occasion) Amazon can counter-argue that people should in theory be able to give their honest opinions on stuff without necessarily risking backlash from sellers and manufacturers, even if the vast majority already use some variant of their given names anyway.