Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No one should be obligated to expose their identity

I just don't understand or get a recent trend towards this idea that everyone online should be identifiable and not allowed to be anonymous. Being anonymous, using pseudonyms or, as Internet sub-culture calls them, "alts" (as in alter-egos) is actually one of the great advantages of the Internet. In recent months the phrases "sock-puppet" has been used on a number of political blogs but it's important right now to distance the idea of an alt and a sock-puppet. The latter concerns active deception with an express purpose. In the context of political blogs it has been used to imply that anonymous posters are in fact just the same person posting over and over again pretending to be someone else. Alts on the other hands are actually more complex.

Being anonymous online, or posting under a pseudonym allows users to explore parts of their personality and character that might otherwise leave hidden. They may be someone who has internal rage and seeks outlet in WRITING IN CAPITAL LETTERS. They could be a male who wants to be a female and wants to role play that life out. Second Life is the alter-ego born into graphics, it is a window into the psyche of the masses in some respect, because the avatar presented to you is what that person wants to be, and rarely what they actually are.

When it comes to words, and comments posted on political sites there seems to be two schools of thought. The first is the NetLibertarian school which states simply that the Net is a free place for individuals to express themselves without fear of repercussion. As such they can post as whoever they want if the features allows them too. The other school of thought is the NetAuthoritarian school which believes political communication on discussion forums or in some case personal websites should be identifiable, and usually argues that this is necessary based upon the assumed belief that if someone is being anonymous they must have something to hide.

Personally speaking I fall into the former position. The problem, and frankly, serious concern I have with the latter is that it ignores both the autonomy of the individual's property and information, and equally disrespects their privacy. Thankfully the Internet, being the free network that it is, means that one can simply refuse to engage where a site demands information that the user does not want to provide. However, it still remains that a movement to shift the autonomy of the individual over their information towards an accepted model of identification is out there.

This it seems is becoming particularly the case when it comes to politics. The argument goes that if there are anonymous sites out there, they could be seen as being propaganda by failing to declare an interest. However, this argument is problematic because the "identify yourself" argument merely shifts the fallaciousness of the reasoning behind any critique. Say you have a site that is run anonymously and slags off the Tories. Most intelligent people would assume it is run by a Labour or Lib Dem supporter and the charge will be made that the site is a propaganda machine.

Let's say that site then declares a political affiliation. Will the criticism on the site change? Not really. The assumed negative in the argument will simple shift to "you are being partisan". Crucially, in both cases the reasoning is flawed because both positions are ad hominen attacks that ignore content and choose to dismiss on the basis of who is saying it. We are at that point - in effect - back to square one. At all times of course we're assuming that the impact of the example website is actually significant, when often it probably isn't.

What's interesting to note here though is where the definition of a political site actually lies. I myself, for example, only actually joined the Tories a couple of years ago. However I've been pontificating and arguing about politics on websites for years. What happens when someone who's just a voter wants to rant anonymously but can actually write and is popular? Is there to be an arbitrary trigger that says when a site goes from being "allowed to be anonymous" to "not being allowed to be anonymous"?

At the end of the day, the Internet biggest strength is its cathartic nature for people to explore parts of themselves that would otherwise go uncharted. For example, the strength and belief I have in my own political views came as a result of arguing online from positions that I fundamentally did not agree with. If the Internet is to be a free network it's fundamental that people - if they choose - be able to run websites, post comments, or whatever in a totally anonymous manner. It's worth noting as well that those that have called for greater exposure of identity in the online arena have also been vocal in their opposition to the introduction of ID cards in the offline world. That suggests an interesting contradiction about attitudes toward personal autonomy to say the least.

We shouldn't forget though that it is autonomy over our information; and autonomy to disclose about ourselves when we choose too that is really at stake here. Some might consider it a freedom of speech issue but that would misplaced, its actually a freedom of control over our/your/my information issue.

Yours drinking beer on the beach,



Unknown said...

I have no problem with "anonymous", so long as they add something to the debate. The problem I find is that he/she usually just serves up abuse, like some hooded youth in the street giving you a mouthful and then running off to hide their identity and avoid responsibility.

Anonymous said...

just because there are now laws it doesn't mean there's no authority. we should submit to the interweb lord protector and all do what Tim says because he loves us and he doesn't want us to hurt our eyes by looking at the Sun.

Is this sockpuppeting or astroturfing? I get confused.

Old BE said...

Remember that the authoritarians don't like chaos, organised or not.

I don't blog anonymously but I don't have anything against anyone who does. I hate this spiteful "outing" of anonymous bloggers that happens, after all there may be a good reason for anonymous blogging and posting such as people in "sensitive" positions like police officers or political insiders.

Keep up the good work. Have an ouzo on me ;-)

Anonymous said...

My libertarianism apparently has limits. I have no problem with anonymous commenting, but I draw the line at the use of the word "obligated" for the much-more-elegant "obliged" when the writer does not have the good defence of being American.


Anonymous said...

I don't want my mother to know that I've nothing better to do than read, and leave comments, on blogs. Actually, she has been dead fourteen years, but I expect you know what I mean.

lilith said...

I agree Dizzy. Easy for people to disregard what you say if they think they know who you are. I very rarely comment anonymously but I would hate not to be able to. All those sub-personalities trying to get out....

Chris Paul said...

Mostly with you on this one Dizzy. However with freedom and free speech etc come consequences and if for example a group of leftist or otherwise downright nasties picks on let's say Guido Fawkes and claim he is a nasty racist nazi etc to the extent that Guido is very seriously upset, driven to distraction, lashing out etc etc then all this anonymity, troll-puppetry and the like does get very tiresome. Which is why I helped GuF rescue himself from this situation. Despite his threats.

Inspite of the beliefs you have outlined from the beach you have measures in place here, e.g. comment moderation and IP snoopage ability, to discourage the muppets from polluting your airspace and using your facilities for villification, defamation and puerility.

Doncha? Well doncha?

Croydonian said...

Chris, I'm minding the store for Dizz but hope not to have to block or delete posts.

He had to spike something defamatory over the weekend, otherwise I think he would have been happy enough to leave the blog unguarded bar word recognition. As Dizzy's regulars are well aware, he is not big on red lining comments.

Anonymous said...

In an ideal world I would agree with you.But it's not ideal. Too many threads on Guido, Dale and Conhome get utterly wrecked by cowards who prefer to hide behind pseudonyms.

Tapestry said...

I started with a pseudonym on blogs after finding 'comments' are accessible on search engines. When I tried to search on the net my non-political business publications, to see where they were being used and cited, I found I had to wade through tens of political comments I had dropped off on blogs.

The points made by Dizzy are valid, but my reason for using a pseudonym were simply practical, to keep identities separate.

Caroline Hunt said...

malcolm -

But how are they wrecking it? If it's said anonymously don't believe it. As Mr Weasley in the Harry Potter books very wisely said "You shouldn't trust anything that thinks for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain". We all know this so why are people threatened by it?

Anon posters are instantly weakened by their lack of integrity. Don't give them anymore credit by making them seem more important than they are.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if people in favour of enforced identification online also think that the Economist should be forced to introduce bylines for its journalists?

Mr Eugenides said...

A propos, there was a story today about Oxford proctors using Facebook photos and profiles as evidence against students.

Even if our shields of anonymity are not lead-lined, a modicum of discretion is no bad thing. A sweary blogger might find himself Googled by a prospective employer and, if he uses his real name in his byline, find his application compromised. Even if you don't care for some of the wilder vitriol that gets poured out on the internet, anonymity has its genuine and reasonable uses.

This is separate from the issue of "sock-puppetry", I think: Manic's complaint is that anonymous commenters can use Blogger to assume whatever identity they like instantly and without authentication. That's a fair point, and is not the same as the complaint that I can write what I want under an assumed name.

At the end of the day, if I post on forums and blogs as Mr Eugenides, my profile is accessible, my blog quickly found, and I am accountable for what I say and write - at least online, if not (in the general run of things) in the "real world". If I choose to adopt a sock-puppet ID, that's not the case.

And therein lies the difference.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tapestry. It's a privacy issue and nothing to do with 'exploring alternate personalities'. We may do business with people who would not like our blog views and might cease doing business with us if they had access to our identities. Likewise, blog names can protect people's children. They can also protect the blogger from the consequences of, perhaps, partners in professional chambers finding we hold views that the senior partner doesn't like. Or that the senior consultant doesn't like. Whatever.

It's a non-issue. In Britain, you have the legal right, unless Tony pushed yet further destruction of our liberties through on the sly,to call yourself anything you choose, as long as it is not with intent to deceive - as in calling yourself, let's say, Lord Cabriolet with intent to con people out of money.

Anonymouses are lazy and it's too irritating to try to sort through them, but most people with blog names have an established ongoing personality - probably their real personality, but under a mask.

Anonymous said...

What's more, there's a wonderful, wildly entertaining world of invention in blog names. What about King Umbongo, for example? And The Archduke? Muttley the Dog? Pounce. Nomad. Manfarang. Tapestry...

What fun!

Anonymous said...

I think everyone must be made to identify themselves on the internet... also if they say anything that turns out to be wrong they should be publically flogged.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but you're a dog. You go by smell. The rest of us have to go by names.

Greg said...

Dizzy, I must say.. I read a number of 'conservative minded' blogs, and posts like these are rapidly convincing me that you are at the top of the pile.

Anonymous said...

Where did odd terms like sock puppet come from ? In England we had the term glove puppet but that was when people in England could speak and read and even write in English

Anonymous said...

Dizzy said, on Rastamans real estate
"Im glad to see you guys have woken up to the Bush/Bin Laden/CIA threat to your futures, only its kinda dooh, where do we go from here!

Who are your alternatives?"

jordon said "Dizzy says “Who are your alternatives?”
What do you reckon, dizzy.
Seems “business” ties all the strings of the world together, and the political dance is for our benefit.
Take your sides, guys, here’s a common enemy. Unite behind my flag, and we’ll blow his balls off.
Ultimately it can’t be in the interests of the suppliers of hydrocarbons to ruin their own paying customers, - so……………..?
What do you think Dizzy?

Well, Dizzy, it's easy to post and ask that sort of question, - what do you think?

Anonymous said...

On this site?
My, oh My.

Anonymous said...

I am involved at a senior level in a couple of NGOs. I have to be very careful about what I say on record. If I couldn't comment anonymously my commenting would go down dramatically. An effort to out everybody would lose the valuable insights delivered by many people too close to the action to name themselves.

There are many professionals who provide useful advice, but would not do so if they could be held professionally liable. Some people's contracts of employment preclude stating opinions publicly -- for instance civil servants, the armed forces, police....

An end to anonymous posting would be an end to much of our current expert posting.

Chris Paul said...

That last point is a fair one. Also politically restricted people. However there is another fix for that which is the Tapestry one. To have a settled alter ego which keeps things separate but identifies to an extent which anonymous is which.

When Timmy writes on this subject he outs himself with half a dozen pen names. But the problem is not the odd anonymous comment (guilty) or even the odd pen name (also guilty) but a systematic legion of anons and pens and mischief made with them. Establishing "bona fides" of false stories by repetition, instigating rumours, ad hominem and ad feminem attacks under cover, and so on.

Some of this is downright nasty and there is a difference between defending a principle and defending the abuse of that.

In the RW free speech is balanced with other rights and responsibilities. Defamation, shouting "fire", urging violence - all rightly restricted.

Athos said...

Interestingly, I approached it from the other angle: deciding on my online handle for political postings before choosing the characteristic manner in which I would post.

On the other hand, the choice of using a seperate name was to keep distance between my political perspective and my real life identity... who has many blogging friends who are very Left indeed, despite being entirely reasonable individuals in person.

I would rather not have the two destinctively linked and/or compete with anyone else using the handle "Athos" for any official registry required by Law.

Gareth said...

Wow, I've never particularly bifurcated from Dizzy's views before but I must now open clear blue water between us. He is entirely right to believe that anonymity should be a sensible pre-requisite of the interweb. However,derogatory, divisive or downright abusive comments, made behind the "smokescreen" of anonymity is, in my view, sheer, unadulterated cowardice. To be controversial but to hide behind anonymity is, imho, the lowest form of of posting.c.f. The NuLab astroturfers. scum of the earth in all respects.

There are very good reasons why someone should or could seek internet anonymity, moral or intellectual cowardice do not fit that bill. If it is your opinion, have the courage to state it!

Wrinkled Weasel said...

"anonymous" posters are annoying because they are like hit and run drivers. They leave their mark but the result is usually indiscriminate damage. They also devalue there message by being so.

I am comfortable now with my ID. People know what they are going to get, but more importantly they can take what I write in the context of my posting history. I suppose it makes for more meaningful dialogue.

My real concern is that tomorrow, or even twenty minutes into the future, all of this will be forgotten. It is not a shared experience in the same way as a book is, or even, heaven forbid a TV broadcast.

One day, the entire output of all blogs will be collated and indexed by some super computer, and who knows, it may form the beginning of mechanical consciousness itself.

Marshall McLuhan became very unfashionable at one point, but I think his understanding of new media was spot on. He never lived to see the internet but he said,

"In this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness."

I think he is right.

Anonymous said...

Have you read any articles about nichannel, AKA 2channel? It's not only the largest internet forum in the world, but also freely anonymous. Gradually it has become an increasing influence (although still relatively minor compared to TV or movies) on Japanese popular culture. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2channel

Some might say taking the mantle of anonymous is lazy. I would say the lazy ones are those who can't be bothered to judge a message on its own merits and instead look for an easy way to ad-hom prejudice themselves against or in favor of it based on who wrote it.

Anonymous said...

I have a handful of name I use, and their use is based on the comment and the site I'm visiting.
If I Ego Surf (putting your name into a search engine) I have to make sure I can't be caught saying something bad against my employer. Comments have a bad habit of being taken out of context - and I don't want to lose my lively hood through misinterpretation.

Anonymous said...

Whilst we are on the subject of identity. Can Dizzy let me know who he is? I am writing a blog on how bloggers drive the newsagenda, mainly due to journos who read top blogs like yours for story and feature ideas, rather than just simply commenting on the news.

Give us a clue please!