Anonymity on the Net

There’s an interesting piece on the New York Times site by Professor Stanley Fish, titled “Anonymity and the Dark Side of the Internet“.

A quick disclaimer to start with, though: bear in mind that what you’re reading here is my comment on an article in which Prof. Fish reviews a collection of essays by academics citing various principles and legal precedents. This discourse has more layers than Inception… and that’s before you get to the comments readers have left on Prof. Fish’s article itself.

The collection of essays is called “The Offensive Internet” – and based on Prof. Fish’s portrayal, the contributors are writing from the standpoint that anonymity online is a Bad Thing, about which Something Must Be Done. Second disclaimer: I haven’t actually read “The Offensive Internet”… but as much of the discussion apparently revolves around the dangers of unsubstantiated online gossip, it would be contrary to let a mere lack of factual knowledge stop me blogging about it, wouldn’t it?

The position of the anti-anonymists is (at least, as far as Prof. Fish represents it) riddled with arguments from the particular to the general – principally along the lines of “here is an instance where online anonymity has undesirable consequences – therefore all online anonymity is undesirable”. In part, the picture painted is of an ecosystem polluted by irresponsible comment, libel and misinformation, riding on the back of instant, mass publication with total immunity from being held to account.

Some of the quotations Prof. Fish includes are such gems I almost wonder if he isn’t part of some fiendishly cunning marketing ploy, designed to convince us that the only way to stem our incredulity it to read it for ourselves. Out of context or not, what are we to make of a statement like: “autonomy resides not in free choice per se but in choosing wisely”? So, I can have (or at least call it) autonomy, but only if I agree not to make foolish, capricious, ill-informed or simply bad decisions. And who decides which of my free’ choices qualifies as autonomous? Someone else, you say….? Hmm.

Even if we accept that the essays, Prof. Fish himself, or both, are being deliberately polemical, it does the argument against anonymity no credit to ignore valid counterexamples. For instance, The Times and The Economist both have a long tradition of anonymous publication (The Times for its leaders and The Economist in general). That has a number of consequences: it means that the credibility of what is written depends first (and foremost) on its content and second (and less) on the brand under which it appears. The second factor, the brand or reputation of the publication, is critically interdependent on the credibility of the content. This virtuous circle encourages the anonymous to write in such a way as to enhance the credibility of their host publication. It is not true, then, that anonymity necessarily means a lack of accountability or an immunity from the consequences of irresponsible writing.

Prohibition of online anonymity would also damage the interests of those whose identity – if disclosed – would expose them to various forms of abuse. Take the case of Harriet Jacobs (not her real name, QED…) whose personal safety depends at least in part to online pseudonymity. Presumably in the brave new world of enforced identifiability, those who fall victim to domestic violence, rape or persecution simply forfeit their entitlement to the means of online expression available to the smug majority. It is not true, then, that anonymity serves only the interests of those who have something libellous, shameful, malicious or just plain wrong to say.

The examples of journalists and Harriet Jacobs illustrate a principle which does not come across in Prof. Fish’s article – that the Internet is quite capable of supporting various levels of identifiability.

There is the relative anonymity of being ‘one of a number of journalists publishing under a given title’; of course the editor knows who wrote what, and who to hold responsible if the article turns out to be libellous. Second, there is the pseudonymity of publishing a blog under a pen name. Ultimately, through a combination of the registration process for the blog itself, the formalities of having a billable IPS account and so on, the author of most blogs could, ultimately, be identified by a third party able to correlate the right identifiers – and most legislation in this area makes provision for law enforcement access (ideally subject to justifying conditions and with some degree of oversight). The real issue, then, is not whether online anonymity can or should be banned, but how to maintain and manage these various levels of anonymity, pseudonymity and identifiability.

The bottom line is that, if the authors of “The Offensive Internet” were looking for an analogy, they could and should have done better than “cesspool” or “graffiti-filled bathroom wall”. The Internet is like electricity. It can be put to good purposes, bad purposes, trivial and misguided purposes, and indeed purposeless uses. You will find anonymity in all those categories, and ruling it out of all of them because of its occasional role in one of them is just perverse.

Speaking of electricity, it’s interesting how frequently writers (Prof. Fish included) quote Justice Brandeis’ comment that “Sunshine [sic] is the best disinfectant” without going on to complete the aphorism. When I give it in full, perhaps you will see why:

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, electric light the most efficient policeman” (Other People’s Money – Chapter V: What Publicity Can Do)

Note the implicit characterisation of sunlight as clean, natural, healthy and life-giving. Who could object to that? By contrast, electricity may create an atmosphere in which people obey the law, but it does so by offering cut-rate panopticality. People will behave because they live under the floodlights. Not such a utopian image.

Mind you, Brandeis’ thesis certainly has its modern resonances; the problem he goes on to address in Chapter V? Excessive bankers’ commissions…


One thought on “Anonymity on the Net

  1. Oddly enough, the authors in this book of essays, at least as summarized by Fish, take no account of the fact that someone who considers herself to be a victim of online anonymous speech can sue the speaker and use discovery to obtain the identity of the speaker. I address these issues here:

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