I’d like to tell a story about online harassment and extract a surprising proposal from it. I’m going to argue that we should consider selectively unmasking anonymous online speakers, not as an aid to litigation, but as a substitute for it. Identifying harassers can be an effective way of holding them accountable, while causing less of a chilling effect on socially valuable speech than liability would.
In the end, I’ll conclude that this proposal is unworkable due to the danger of pretextual uses of an unmasking remedy by plaintiffs looking to engage in extra-legal retaliation. Even this conclusion, though, has something valuable to teach us about the uses and abuses of online anonymity. Decoupling anonymity from liability enables us to understand more clearly what’s at stake with each.