There’s been quite a lot of reaction on the interwebs about a recent decision by the Huffington Post to block anonymous comments in an attempt to prevent abusive behaviour, which is a serious problem on many websites. Many argue that this won’t stop trolls from trolling, which is of course true. What it might do is make some people think twice before they post a comment. It might also allow appropriate (possibly legal) action to follow up more extreme examples.
My own feelings about this are quite complicated actually. I don’t really care about randomly abusive comments from anonymous lowlife. I’ve learned to ignore such things, except when the abuse appears that it might come from, say, someone in your workplace. Some time ago something like that happened to me and I found it so distressing to think that a colleague or student might be behind it. That’s even worse than when somebody does such things brazenly under their own identity.
The Huffington Post’s policy is just one illustration of a wide issue,, namely to what extent one has a right to anonymity. I’m not at all sure what the law says on this or what it should say, in fact, especially when it comes to the internet.
In Britain we don’t have identity cards (not yet anyway), so there’s a sort of de facto right to anonymity there. However, with the increasing levels of surveillance and state intrusion into people’s lives, that is changing. The issue generated by the Huffington Post, however, is how the right to anonymity extends into the blogosphere (or the internet generally) rather than how it applies in other spheres of life.
Some blogs I know are anonymous but I happen also to know who writes them. I presume the authors have reasons for wishing to conceal their identities so I wouldn’t dream of revealing them myself. However, these are all sites run by reasonably civilised people and it’s very unlikely that any of them would use their anonymity to engage in abusive or defamatory activities. If one of them did, I wouldn’t have any qualms at all about exposing their identity, but I’m not sure whether that would be a legally acceptable course of action.
But anonymity still makes me a bit uncomfortable. In academic life we come across it in the context of refereeing grant applications and papers submitted to journals for consideration. Usually the default is for referees to remain anonymous is such situations. Most referees are fairly conscientious and if they have criticisms they are usually presented politely and constructively. There are, however, some exceptions. Fortunately these are few and far between, but there are some individuals who take the opportunity provided by anonymity to be downright abusive. Us old hands have sufficiently thick skins to brush such attacks off, but vitriolic comments made on papers written by inexperienced scientists (perhaps even research students) are completely out of order. This probably wouldn’t happen if referees didn’t have the right to remain anonymous. On the other hand, having your identity known might make it difficult for some to write critically of, say, the work of more senior scientists. Perhaps the answer is to retain anonymity but for the journal editor, for instance, to monitor the reports produced by referees and reprimand any who transgress.
Going back to the subject of blogs, provides me with an opportunity to describe some of the behind-the-scenes issues with running this blog. In the beginning I decided to have an open comment policy so that anyone and everyone could comment without any form of intervention. That turned out to be a disaster because of the number of automatically generated SPAM comments that clogged up the boxes. I therefore switched on a SPAM filter so it could veto obvious garbage, but otherwise kept an open policy. The alternatives offered by WordPress include one that requires all comments to be from people registered at the site (which I thought would probably be a deterrent to people only wanting to comment on the odd post). Another option is to maintain a blacklist which treats all messages from persons on the list as SPAM. It’s also possible to block all comments entirely, of course, but I enjoy reading most of them so I think it would be a shame to do that just because of a few breaches of netiquette.
All went fairly well and I only had to ban a couple of individuals for abuse. I did for a time receive a stream of crudely abusive comments (of a personal nature) from various anonymous sources. These were mostly depressingly puerile and they didn’t affect me much but I did find it very disconcerting to think that there are people sitting out there with nothing better to do.
Since WordPress notifies me every time a comment is posted, it is quite easy to remove this junk but I found it very tiresome (when there were several per day) and eventually decided to change my policy and automatically block comments from all anonymous sources. Since this requires a manual check into whether the identity information given with the comment is bona fide, comments from people who haven’t commented on this blog before may take a little while to get approved.
There are still comments on here which may appear to a reader anonymous (or with a pseudonym) on here, but these are from people who have identified themselves to me with a proper email address or who the software has identified through their IP address or information revealed by their web browser (which is probably more than you think…). I’m happy for people to comment without requiring they release their name to the world, and will do my best to ensure their confidentiality, but I’m not happy to publish comments from people whose identity I don’t know.
If you’re interested, as of today approximately 17500 comments have been published on this blog. The number rejected as SPAM or abuse is about 350,000 (many of them from a Mrs Trellis of North Wales). That means that only about one comment in twenty is accepted.
Am I denying freedom of speech by rejecting anonymous comments? I don’t think so. If you want freedom of speech that much, you can write your own blog (anonymous or otherwise). And if every sight of this blog makes you want to write abusive comments, perhaps you should exercise your freedom not to read it.
I’d be interested to know from any fellow bloggers if they have the same problems with abusive comments. If not, perhaps I should start taking it personally!
More generally, I will not accept anonymous comments on the subject of the anonymity of comments, but any other contributions are welcome via the box.
Unless you’re banned.Follow @telescoper