Anonymity

It’s not often that I blog about celebrity tittle-tattle – I have no idea who most “celebrities” are these days anyway – but a little story in last week’s Guardian online caught my eye. I thought I’d mention it here because it raises some interesting issues.

The story is of a fashion model, Liskula Cohen (whom I’d obviously never heard of). It appears that an anonymous blogger (with the charming pseudonym “Skanks”) wrote some derogatory remarks about said Ms Cohen on a website. The latter decided to sue for defamation, but that was difficult because the identity of the blogger wasn’t known. Cohen therefore went to court in an attempt to compel Google to identify the person responsible. She won that case, and duly found out that the blogger was a person called Rosemary Port (who I’d never heard of either). Anyway, to cut a long story short, Ms Cohen dropped her original lawsuit but Ms Port is now suing Google for handing over her real identity…

Of course the story is all a bit childish, but there is a serious question behind it, 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 story above, however, is how the right to anonymity extends into the blogosphere (or the internet generally) rather than how it applies in real 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 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 original 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 numbers 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. However, over the course of the year I have received a steadily increasing number of crudely abusive comments (of a personal nature) from various anonymous sources. These are mostly depressingly puerile and they don’t affect me much but I 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 appear 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 this blog has received 4105 comments in total, but only 1747 have been published. The rest were either SPAM or abuse.

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.

20 Responses to “Anonymity”

  1. It’s ironic you should mention the case of Rosemary Post and the model, because it sparked the same kind of rumination for me. I understand that some bloggers and commenters might wish to remain anonymous for good reasons, particularly if this otherwise innocent activity could hinder their professional prospects. Most do not abuse this. But I have a problem with those who hide behind a cloak of anonymity to hurl invective vitriol they would never dare utter if held publicly accountable for their words.

    Some part of me, deep down, believes that with freedom of speech comes a responsibility to stand by one’s words. In the traditional press, after all, if you wrote a letter to the editor, it had to be signed in order to be published: full name, city, and state. Given the level of discourse I’ve seen at the Washington Post comment sections, for instance, maybe professional news sites should think about re-instituting that practice.

    As for my own blog, I use Typepad, which filters out most of the SPAM although the odd bit of “affirmation SPAM” still gets through. (You know, they consist of a single line “Nice post! Lots of good information here!” with a link back to a porn site or something.) I don’t get many rude comments, but there was a brief period where a handful of trolls seemed to be targeting the blog. I didn’t make a fuss, quietly kept deleting those comments and eventually said trolls got bored and went away. Sounds like something similar is happening with you . Banning them doesn’t help if they’re Web-savvy, BTW: they just find a new IP address to hack. 🙂

    At Cocktail Party Physics, we have a clearly stated comment policy under the ABOUT section, and we rarely have to enforce it. Like you, we’ve had to ban maybe two people — and they were people just begging to be banned because they take pride in in, frankly. Hang in there, and eventually the trolls will get bored and go away.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Jennifer,

    Thanks for your message. I think you’re probably right. I did for a while think about closing comments entirely but decided that was an overreaction. The wordpress spam filter is pretty good too. It cuts out most obvious junk and very few real comments get zapped.

    Peter

  3. There is a difference between ‘anonymous’ and ‘pseudonymous’. The first means with no traceable identity whatever, like a referee – the second, that there is an identity which differs from the name of the person in ‘real life’ (i.e. not online).

    Sometimes, the only way criticisms of powerful people and institutions can be made is via anonymous or pseudonymous publication. You started with a rather trivial example of ‘bad’ anonymity, but if it is impossible to ever communicate without giving a name and address then no-one may ever take the risk of saying the emperor has no clothes.

    Take, for example, a company or government department where abuse of employees is commonplace. To say so in public would be highly risky and also prima-facie defamatory. (Not just derogatory…) That’s the whole idea of whistle-blower protections.

    The only problem with journal referees is that editors forget that the responsibility rests with themselves and the referees are merely ‘expert’ witnesses – when their advice is manifestly less than expert it should be ignored.

    • telescoper Says:

      Thomas

      I agree and the example you give is one situation where concealing one’s identity is certainly justifiable.
      The identity of a referee is of course known to the editor. I wonder what would happen if an editor decided to disclose it without the referee’s consent?

      Peter

  4. Peter,

    I’ve had few problems with spam in my comments and I don’t moderate but I am also unaware of what Blogger does to filter spam before it gets to my own blog. It may also be that hardly anyone reads my blog!

    The whistle-blower argument is a good one and there are others, for instance, such as making life harder for the more litigious cranks out there in fantasy land that will do whatever they can to make it difficult and very expensive to publish sceptical views. I’ve been a victim of the latter and you only have to browse sites such as James Randi’s (http://www.randi.org/site/) to see what these people will stoop to. It’s the reason why I don’t make it completely obvious in my own blog who I am although people in the trade can figure it out fairly quickly – in fact whatever anonymity I had was blown very quickly by a couple of other astronomy-related bloggers!

    Anyway, in some cases it may well be once bitten twice shy.

    Tom

  5. Anonymous free speech is a wonderful privilege and should be preserved at all costs, however like all good things is subject to abuse. The accessibility and efficiency of anonymous blogging technologies has caused this good thing to be abused in terrible ways.

    I personally had my career, business, relationships, and job prospects utterly devastated by a relentless and malicious anonymous blogger. Although I have positively identified the individual, (who has been recently jailed for other charges and is awaiting trial in two states), the legacy of destruction persists. Thankfully I was able to turn adversity into opportunity and now earn an honest living assisting other victims of Internet libel; most people are not so fortunate.

    I am passionately committed to improving community awareness of this problem. I like to use the following analogy to help “future victims” of Internet libel understand the anguish and destruction that comes with this 21st Century pandemic:

    Imagine if you will a farmer who has had his or her livestock destroyed and barns and fields burned by a vandal; the devastating effect on his or her livelihood does not take Einstein to imagine. Whereas, a white-collar worker, fashion model or other intangible service provider who relies on his or her reputation to find new business, and for that matter keep existing business, can be as utterly destroyed as thoroughly as the farmer described above as a result of an effective internet smear campaign. The difference being that the community and judges can more easily relate to the farmer’s calamity.

    An inherent weakness of anonymity is that it has less credibility when considered by intelligent and objective readers. Notwithstanding, there is a new dynamic with this problem of malicious anonymous blogging. Although the assertions and allegations may lack credibility, when it comes to the victim being considered for employment or contract awards, the person carrying out due diligence needs to look at the risks associated with attaching themselves to the victim. Although they may see through the diatribe, the decision maker needs to consider what their customers will think if they are not so sophisticated or objective.

    Respectfully submitted, Michael Roberts. (Anonymous blogger bounty hunter)

    http://www.Rexxfield.com

  6. Peter – I am sorry to hear you have had abusive comments … I have had some bizarrely combative episodes, but nothing really abusive – to me. However, in the past I have had some people seriously overstepping the mark in their remarks about well known third parties, i.e. public figures, and took some advice about what was libellous and who was responsible. The advice was that if comments are unfiltered and known to be so, then the commenter is legally responsible for what they say; but if you manually filter comments, then you are deemed to be publishing those comments and become responsible. I therefore kept my open comment policy, and added the warning statement you can find at the top of my blog…. Alternatively of course you really can take editorial responsibility.

    • telescoper Says:

      Interesting. Libel is a tricky subject, but I always thought that if what you say is obviously opinion, rather than being presented as fact, then it can’t be defamatory…

  7. If I were to write “I think you might find that Telescoper is a child molester”, I would not stand much of a chance without some compelling support. If I was to give that same “opinion” after posting a the results of a 2 week stakeout with photos, journals etc, I would be in a much better position even though the supporting evidence is circumstantial.

  8. telescoper Says:

    The phrase I heard from a legal advisor was that a libel had to be a statement that is “expressly stated, or implied to be, factual”. I think your first statement might indeed be libellous if you could not prove it to be true. However, if I were to say “I always thought Michael Roberts was an idiot” that would – as far as I understand the law – not be libellous.

  9. Absolutely, and in your defense I have made some very poor life choices 🙂

    “Idiot” along with “jerk” and other such terms are generally considered to be rhetorical hyperbole, and are actually privileged forms of speech. Whereas, molester, tax fraud, thief, extortionist and other such words are generally not construed to be hyperbole.

    It can sometimes be thin line and I have seen cases go either way in the judge’s interpretation. Naturally, the court’s decision will take the offensive language into context with the entire communication.

  10. Michael

    I hadn’t realised that there was a list of such words! Is there a dictionary?

    I notice your website seems to deal almost exclusively with libel, but the internet can also be used for other forms of abuse, such as harassment. Under British law there is an offence of harassment if a person “displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting” in such a way that it causes another person “harassment, alarm or distress”.

    I’m not sure if similar laws exist in other countries.

    Peter

  11. Michael has made some very valid points. My impression is that Michael is in the US, please forgive and correct me if I’m wrong. The only reason I mention this is that libel laws are actually much stricter in the UK compared to the US and my impression is that Michael is using the US as a basis for his comments. There was a recent court decision in the UK, involving an ISP which I forget the name of right now, where the court ruled against the ISP in a defamation case whereas in the US the outcome would have been very different.

    The problem with the US is that it doesn’t matter if you have a case or not, anyone can sue anyone for anything. It matters not if you stand a chance of winning, you can make anyone’s life a misery and very expensive just by filing a lawsuit, even if it’s utterly frivolous. At least in the UK there is the deterrent of having to pay the winning side’s costs if you lose and it’s a system I wish was introduced in the US.

    Tom

  12. Rexxfield deals in the civil aspects of cyber bullying, primarily libel. However we have consulted on cases that involve harassment, but naturally they are elevated to law enforcement once we’ve gathered enough evidence. The things that we would do in such cases would be more appropriately executed by law enforcement, but the USA has thousands of small sheriff’s offices. They are not equipped or educated to deal with such things so we get things moving on behalf of the victim until such time that law enforcement takes the threat seriously.
    MR

  13. Peter, actually I am an Australian citizen, a US green card holder (permanent resident) currently in Finland 🙂

    Yes you are correct, there is a great deal of vexatious litigation in the United States. This is exacerbated by the fact that many lawmakers have children who become lawmakers. This seems to be a perpetual cycle of absurdity with respect to award of legal costs. Peter, I could sue you in the USA if I didn’t like the color of the shirt you’re wearing. Naturally, you would when, but you would still be stuck with your legal fees. Such incentives for vexatious litigation is a great way to keep judges and legislators children employed if they follow Mum and dad into the legal industry.

    I prefer the British (and Australian) to terror where the loser pays all legal fees.

  14. Michael – I believe you’re replying to a comment from me – Tom – not Peter! Just want to keep things straight!

  15. Ooops sorry, no more multi-tasking for me today.

  16. It’s interesting to think what would have happened in the “Skanks” case under UK law. Not only is the burden of proof reversed in libel actions here – making it much easier for the plaintiff to be successful – but I also think that some of the bloggers comments could also be construed as harassment, for which both civil and criminal remedies could be sought.

  17. […] remain anonymous (or pseudonymous) is the violation of some fundamental human right.  I’ve blogged about this issue before, so won’t repeat myself […]

  18. […] thing – so I’m going to indulge in a bit of recycling. I posted some years ago about internet anonymity in the wake of a spate of abusive comments on this blog. I’m not sure whether a spate can […]

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