Anonymity Revisited

I’ve a lot to do today – a backlog of crosswords to clear, for one 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 have a wake, actually , but I’ll press on regardless.

Today there’s a typically insightful piece by David Mitchell in the Observer on a similar topic, cleverly juxtaposing St Valentine’s Day (where anonymous messages are welcomed) with the rise of the internet troll whose messages are of a distinctly unwelcome character. I think he gets it just right (as usual):

Like love, hate is something that makes us go red in the face. It’s safer expressed covertly lest it be rejected.

I’ve encountered more recent – and much more serious – examples of what people are prepared to get up to under the cover of anonymity. I’ve refrained, and shall continue to refrain, from describing them in detail here. Some of my friends – and some of my students – know what I’m talking about. All that has now stopped, but if it starts again the gloves will definitely come off.

These experiences have confirmed my distaste for anonymity. I will therefore persist with my policy of requiring a proper email address for commenters on this blog. The address will not be revealed to the public, of course, and commenters are free to use pseudonyms if they wish. I can understand that people might want not to be identified if they say something controversial, especially if it amounts to whistle-blowing. However, if you wish to express opinions on my blog I think it’s not unreasonable for me to know who you are.

Anyway, the following is taken from an old post (from 2009) which arose from a story in the press at the time.


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), 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. UPDATE: as of today, 19th February 2012, 11880 comments have been published and 86703 rejected

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.

12 Responses to “Anonymity Revisited”

  1. your blog is a hoot – I’d be concerned that the burden of filtering would move you to quit.
    Hope not.

  2. To the left of centre Says:

    I’ve been writing my anonymous blog for 2 and a half years now. I don’t really have any particularly good reason for being anonymous, so won’t even try to justify it. I did decide, however, that if I commented on other blogs, I would do not do so anonymously. WordPress, however, has a nasty habit – if you’re still logged in – of replacing whatever name and email address you’ve entered with your Worpdress username and the email address you’ve used for your WordPress account. This is fine if it’s your first comment, but if it’s a follow up comment, rather gives away who you are. Have managed to get it corrected in one instance (Thanks Peter) but not in all, so it does mean that I don’t actually know how anonymous I am. No one’s indicated to me that they do know, so maybe I’ve got away with it.

  3. In a society where there is even the least little bit of corruption – think ‘jobs for the boys’ or ‘taking care of your friends’ – let alone ‘extraordinary rendition’ – anonymity can be a necessary precondition for negligence or abuse of power to be exposed. In some contexts anonymity must be protected to the full extent of the law.

    However, posting comments to a ‘privately owned’ blog is not one of these contexts… it is of course teles coper’s choice whether to allow any comments at all.

    (I have to say that the requirement to have a valid email address whether in one’s real name or not is not a very high bar. Email addresses are two a penny…)

    Though, I wonder what would happen if someone pseudonymously known to the blog owner posted a comment – say, on something that happened in the Cardiff Physics & Astronomy department – which had potentially libellous implications if false – and serious professional implications if true. Not that I am threatening to do so.

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s an interesting point, and the reason why I have a disclaimer on the front page. I think I could still be sued for libel, however, as a “publisher”…

      I have been threatened with a libel suit, in fact. I told the complainer to go ahead as I could prove that everything that was said was true, and would relish the opportunity to go to court to reveal a number of other things I know about him that are also true. I heard nothing more.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Totally agree wtih you you say, stringph. Anonymity is increasingly valuable as governments progressively strangle freedom of speech. And if you really want to run an anonymous blog, run it from an internet cafe in another town, from which you have previously set up a new email address for the webhost.

      Also totally agree that, within WordPress’s rules, it’s Peter’s blog and he can do what he likes.

  4. Boris Morris of Corris Says:

    So comments can be posted here using pseudonyms. I don’t think I’d want to try that.

  5. Nick Cross Says:

    I thought Mrs Trellis would have had something to say about this by now.

    • Mrs Trellis Says:

      Dear Nick Ross

      I called you frequently when you worked for Radio 4, but you never answered. I should have known not to trust you because you feature so regularly on Crimewatch.

      Yours sincerely,

      Mrs Trellis

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