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Net anonymity is for the chicken hearted August 24, 2009

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.

I’ve been following the Liskula Cohen and now-made-public Rosemary Port issue. It involves a blogger who used the blogs hosted by Google to write about various women using terms like skank and ho. One of them, Cohen, sued Google by claiming that the blog was unduly derogatory. Google was ordered by the judge in the case to disclose who the anonymous blogger was, Port.

Now Port is suing Google for $15 million for invasion of privacy. Her attorney says Google breached his client’s expectation of anonymity and privacy. I will love seeing this one develop. If Google is like most webhosts, there are clauses in the use agreement that say that unlawful activity are not covered. Since a court ordered Google to disclose, that means it had to follow the law. An implicit interpretation by Port of anonymity no matter what is about as strong a legal argument as the “I only was following orders” defense used in Nuremburg.

The Internet culture has always steeped itself in this attitude that anonymity is key. It is only a self-imposed thing, done by those not wanting to back up their own opinions and hiding behind some pseudo-identity. My belief is if you have the opinion and want it out there, you ought to be willing to stand up, stand out, and back up your own convictions by noit hiding through some avatar or pseudonym. If not, then you are just a blowhard who wants to shout out while wearing a mask.



1. The Chemist - August 24, 2009

Indeed, anonymity is for the chicken-hearted. Eric Blair and Samuel Clemens need to get out from behind this newfangled pseudonym business and speak their ideas with conviction.

Free speech relies on the ability of speakers to remain anonymous. Social repercussions can have as much of a chilling effect on speech as laws forbidding certain kinds of speech. Putting that aside, what does it matter who is saying a thing? What matters is what is being said.However I am inclined to agree with you that Google should not be liable for complying with a court order. That said, this isn’t the UK (thank goodness), and I strongly doubt such a libel suit would have stuck against a public person.

2. fetzthechemist - August 24, 2009

This seems to go back to the one, Cohen, talking about the other, Post, to an exboyfriend of Post’s. So it was not an opinion of a public figure, but a petty spat between to rayher choldish women. But one used the anonymity of her blog to savage the other rather than telling her off to her face or something that requires a little spine.

Free speech has become an overly broad umbrella for those seeking the self-claimed right to say anything about someone else. If I accused you in person of stealing from your school, that would be libel, but doing so as a comment on your blog has gecome just the right of any Internet user to say what they want.

3. milo - August 24, 2009

I blogged for a number of years under a nome-de-fake for three reasons. 1) Chemistry (science in general) is typically a very petty field, and I liked the freedom that anonymity gave. Sure, I could have manned up and posted under my real name, but why take a chance it? And 2) after a while, people come to know the way you write, and it really does not matter if you use a real or fake name. If they like what you write, they come back to read. Most people don’t care who you are outside of your posting. 3) It was just plain fun. Of course, anonymity can be taken waaaay too far when it become a cover for slander and lies. But if used ethically and honestly, I don’t see any chicken-ness at all.

To take it one step further, why not remove the anonymity from the grant and journal review process?

4. milo - August 24, 2009

I should also point out the fact that my humble domain, milomuses.com, is no more. You might want to reclaim some space by removing me from the blog roll (sniff…. sniff)

5. tyrosine - August 26, 2009

” My belief is if you have the opinion and want it out
there, you ought to be willing to stand up, stand out,
and back up your own convictions by noit hiding
through some avatar or pseudonym. If not, then
you are just a blowhard who wants to shout out
while wearing a mask.”

Sure, whistle-blowers should just risk their jobs, victims of rape or child abuse should just toughen the fuck up and declare who they are to the world, gay curious teenagers should ask questions about their sexuality online using their real names – what’s a bit of teasing at school? I agree that crime, hate-mongering, etc. should not be allowed to hide behind anonymity but it’s idiotic to say there’s no place for anonymous identities on the internet.

6. fetzthechemist - August 26, 2009

Ok, the key here was not that certain things ought not be protected, but that a lot of people abuse that protection to do things they do not have the guts to do in person. As with many arguments, the specious debators will pull out the 0.01 % to justify treating the 99.99 % the same way. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney used this same style to combat terrorism through the Patriot Act, imposing government intrusiveness on the 99.99+ % because of the few real terrorist uses of the Internet. Ironic that you use the same illogic.

Whistleblowers, rape and child abuse victims might want to blog on the Internet, but society has already put in screen to deal with these issues in the normal ways – I seriously doubt a rape victim who tears her heart out describing her ordeal online would not have the courage to go to the police. OK, if I accept that specious situation, then a few ought not to be public.

But this case and thousands and thousands of others use that anonymity to allow unwarranted and unjustifiable smears and attacks. The Internet veil lets people who have no courage, no convictions act like they do. If I did like something as an opinion, like thinking Friends of the Earth is too radical for my environmentalist views or that a certain restaurant has poor service and overrated food, I do so as me because I would be willing to say the same things in a real conversation.

To attack someone you know, shroud it in Internet anonymity, then to bring up privacy issues as Port does is ludicrous and hypocritical. She relies on the so-called celebrity status of her target to shield her from libel charges. She and her attorney pick-and-choose which freedoms they accept and which they ignore.

7. tyrosine - August 28, 2009

So I give you three examples where your blanket generalisation falls down and you call it specious? I suggest you look up “specious” and while you have the dictionary open check “hubris” too see if your photo is there. 🙂

There are lots of reasons where good and valuable communication happens because the parties are anonymous. I’ll bet Salman Rushdie wishes he published under a pseudonym. And more seriously, why do you think most questionaires are anonymous? Because marketers, journalists, and psychologists know they get more honest answers that way.

I’ve already said that hiding hate speech behind anonymity (as Port did) is wrong. But that actually seems to be the minority. Maybe it’s you using the 0.01% to attack the 99.99% huh? And maybe because you put your real name to your blog (I’m assuming, since we’ve never met) that causes you to be less honest with what you write.

Okay, so I’m having a dig but seriously I frequent several forums and have many “friends” who I know only by their screen names. I can tell you people are much more comfortable disclosing and discussing sensitive issues under those circumstances.

8. fetzthechemist - August 28, 2009

OK, so a lot of you need Internet anonymity to speak your minds freely. I will accept your needs, even though my mindset is one where I do not. But this cloak of invisibility is and should only be that, a comfort blanket for the more timid or paranoid. If the people expressing opinions do so vindicively or even more so in some libelous fashion and even much more so if it is criminal, them the cloak ought to be removable. Spewing hatred or not having the spine to say something negative to anyone, warranted or unwarranted, is weak. Port definitely fits in there. Google or any other blog host, ISP, or other entity cannot use privacy or anobymity as the excuse nor ought the users.

The commenters have not differentiated discussions – even opinionated ones – with character assasinations. Cyberbullying is out there and more common that you want to acknowledge, why else woiuld the euphemisms of flaming, flame wars, and such be in everyone’s lexicon and chatrooms have monitors and banishment? (oh, and tyrosine, I actually speak and write normally this way. My publications are replete with an expansive vocabulary – the one thing I gained from my formal education.)

A tangential anecdote….anonymity is so strong, as tyrosine mentions, that even innocuous polls are looked upon as threats by the average Joe Paranoia. I once put out a questionaire where I used to work asking what courses employees might like to have offered. Some people took the time to cut out the address on the flier, even though the scope was only about things like math or basic chemistry courses.

There is a huge current in many people not to take or be held responsible for their action. It has always been easy for the powerful to attack, now Internet anonymity gives that power to everyone. It is still gutless bullying or sniping or backbiting.

9. Milo - August 28, 2009

Surely you recall the early days of the interwebs, back when green and black screens prevailed, that most news groups were poplulated with people bearing names like RKS_004 or LinuxGeek etc… There, especially in the comp. sci. groups, lots of good things came out.

Anonymity is only a problem when you act unethically and “hide” behind your moniker.

10. tyrosine - August 29, 2009

I agree Milo, and I think the indignant pride of Fetz is overcooked. Anonymous chat rooms may protect bullies but they also protect the bullied. You can just change your name or leave. Harder with a real identity.

So let’s try a little test. How honestly would you answer/discuss these issues without being anonymous:

1. Have you ever fudged data on a paper or grant application
2. Have you ever had “impure thoughts” about one of your students (male or female?)
3. Have you ever surfed the internet or dowloaded porn at work?
4. Ever masturbated at work?
5. Ever stolen stuff from your school, including false expense claims?
6. Ever copied & pasted someones work without attribution?

You get my drift. I doubt many academics or any workers in industry (barring saints) would openly and honestly admit and discuss such issues.

Sure there’s the argument about privacy but it’s of genuine interest to understand the breadth of academic misconduct. How do you do that without anonymity.

So before you start bagging Joe Paranoia for his pathetic lack of courage let’s hear your answers to these questions for the record 😉

11. fetzthechemist - August 29, 2009

Anonymity breeding more open and honest discussions is an unprovable concept. Anonymity may allow some to confess their sins, but it also allows many to claim ones undone. It is all about ego in many cases. If I say I got away with stealing from a school or cheating on an exam, is that truth or braggadacchio? I have seen cases in those discussion where both were likely. If the blatant descriptions of stealing or cheating or sex in the labs were true, then there’d be little reason to describe it in a discussion. It would be too commonplace.

Once again you have either broadened my original point or twisted it to include general discussions of all kinds of topics. I specifically described and was incensed by somebody who used her anonymity to savage someone else, then had the gall to claim her own privacy was so sacrosanct that she had to sue Google.

I do not really give two cents if you need to express an opinion on a topic or issue and feel some sense of insecurity that compels you to be cloaked. Your opinion or experience might be interesting to someone in the discussion. I used to participate in those discussion groups in the years when such things were new. But they got boring. Anonymity also stifles real healthy debating of points, counterpoints, refutations, and proof. They just become egocentric shouting matches or dominated by a few rigid-minded individuals more often than not.

But to throw that wide cloak around people who will use it as a shield to prevent countering moves is weak. Once unfounded and anonymous accusations get out, they are never undone. The genie is out of the bottle.

12. The Chemist - August 29, 2009

Meanwhile, I fail to see how being a “skank” is criminal behavior (or even immoral), and can be more than a statement of opinion by the very nature of the word. One only has to go as far as the case against Simon Singh to see how libel laws can go bad.

The argument that a person hiding behind a pseudonym shouldn’t is based on what precisely, though? That they might hurt someone’s feelings? That they might destroy a person’s life? For the former, who cares? For the latter, where the statement is untrue (something that is far more important than whether the person saying it uses their real name) that’s an actual case of libel that is more than a waste of the court’s time, but finding the person’s actual identity remains more about restitution than exposure.

13. Josh - August 29, 2009

@ comment 11. All kinds of back-peddling going on there. Time to fold that hand dude.

14. fetzthechemist - August 29, 2009

Only on the Internet do you get this sanctimonious attitude about anonymity and privacy to say anything you want about anyone or anything. If a person were to print out an anonymous hitpiece as a paper flyer in the real world, they’d be open to charges of libel. Well, wake up folks. The Internet is the real world, too. To do things there as if virtual meant not-real is the most asinine, yet commonplace, idea. If you do it, you do it whether it is in person, on paper, or on some electronic bits. That people have developed the idea that the Internet is some sort of electronic utopia where anything goes does not fit into the real world.

Maybe that is the gist, the dreamers think the real world stops somewhere and does not apply. Well, in Web3 or Twitter2 or some other future venue, set up those up front as groundrules then. Those were not the rules set up in the Internet of now. Then you can figure out all these perfect ideals and put them into perfect practice.

(Port said more than skank, even more than ho. The court ruled that Google had no legal standing to shield somebody if there was possible slander and libel. Port and her lawyer counter that Google broke the unwritten, yet implied (at least to Port) rule of anonymity being sacrosanct. This puts Port’s privacy above that of her target, who had no defense against what were unsubstantiated statements. I guess if you write anonymously, then you gain rights over other people.)

15. fetzthechemist - August 30, 2009

OK, putting the shoe on the other foot for all you supporters of absolute Internet anonymity, here’s a list of examples that ought to be allowable in your world (afterall, you’ve put out lots of your own versions to justify that anonymity has to be the only way for the Internet to retain its intellectual purity).

I run a business. I create blogs under various pseudonyms touting my great services, with made up testimonials, even borrowing the pics and psuedonyms of people who are actually out there in cyberspace. I also savage my competitors’ services and products in the same fashion. Yay or nay?

I am a disgrubtled former employee of a company, let’s say a restaurant. Using my anonymity I fabricate a story and disclose that I found a dead cockroach in the food I ordered there. Yay or nay.

I dislike an instructor, teacher, professor because I got what I thought was an underserved poor grade. I use my anonymity to accuse that person of unwanted sexual advances and harassment. Yay or nay?

I dislike someone for whatever reason. I use my anonymity to imply that he or she might have an STD, never saying herpes or whatever, but giving enough (untrue) veiled hints that this person really might have it. Yay or nay?

The list of other such possibilities is long. But there are two sodes to this claim that anonymity has it positives. The openness you seek may be full of vipers and other unwanted creatures.

16. tyrosine - August 31, 2009

None of what you have said bothers me because as a scientist I consider the potential veracity of such statements in the context of who said them (anonymous or not) and where they were said. In fact most people do this all the time. It’s precisely because the internet is full of bullshit that we have become more discerning about the source. This is an extension of what we have been seeing in print for a long time — or do you put as much credence in The National Enquirer stories as the New York Times?

(Aside: Greetings, I am Mr Gooboloo and I have $62,000,000 in a Nigerian bank account that I will share with you if you send me $1000…..)

I think you’re overdoing the breast-beating on this one. Anonymous posting has it’s place in freeing up people to speak without fear of reprisal but the quid pro quo is that their voice should be taken with a grain of salt by doing so.

17. fetzthechemist - August 31, 2009

Your statement is illogical. The sources are irrelevent. Anonymity for input means all sources are compromised. If you cannot check out the information you either let it sit or you must ban it all. Anything with public input is as suspect as it is acceptable. You cannot clairvoyantly check out the differences.

In your world, Port wins her lawsuit because anonymity is her right. I still say that is the stupidest basis for claiming privacy rights and she ought to be booted out of court after being fined for filing a frivalous harassing lawsuit.

18. tyrosine - September 3, 2009

Huh, what? That’s just stupid. Of course a source is relevant. Are you saying a random anomyous post on the internet should be afforded the same credence as a comment on a trusted site from a known reliable sourve? That’s moronic.

19. fetzthechemist - September 3, 2009

I am the advocate for less reliance on anonymity. You espouse it, yet say that means the person is not very credible. If you [ut in that variable, it meanbs for people to get their stories heard and their opinions noticed and accepted, you need to not hide behind some pseudonym and hidden identity.

I am the one who gives more credence to identified sources for opinions and information. If you do and others do, then there is a huge driving force moving people away from anonymity. What’s the point then? The anonymous get painted as only having negarious, hidden motives. So much for your net freedoms due to anonymity.

20. tyrosine - September 6, 2009

Well we certainly agree there. I never suggested an anonymous poster on the internet should be considered to be credible. Obviously if someone puts their real name to an opinion they have more at stake than an anonymous poster. That’s why I place little credence on the report of a single anonymous poster. But an anonymous opinion can still have interesting insight. That doesn’t make them cowardly.

If someone libled me anonymously on the net I’d just ignore it. What idiot takes the ranting vitriol of an anonymous poster on the net as anything but a hollow flame?

21. fetzthechemist - September 6, 2009

Anonymous posts do not to be ranting. If I were to want to effectively tarnish your image or harm you, I’d choose a guise of reasonable demeanor. If I wrote in calmer style in the guise of a former student confiding that you tried to take unfair advantage of your teaching role, you’d be tainted. The tone of the whistleblower can be assumed by the crafty character assasin, too. There are certain accusations – research fraud, thievery, sexual misconduct, racism or other prejudices, that even an untrue hint of them can create a gray mark, an unprovable accusation that is not quite a black mark. Yet your reputation suffers nonetheless.

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