Anonymity

I deplore the practice of some of those who publish on Slaw—or, indeed, anywhere else—doing so anonymously. I have raised the matter privately with Simon Fodden but I raise it now publicly. In my opinion, anyone who wants to publish anything on Slaw, whether as a post or a comment, should do so only after he or she has provided Simon with a valid e-mail address, a short bio and a statement of the organization with which he or she is affiliated. This information should be available to anyone. Whether or not anonymous blogging will eventually come to an end—as I strongly hope it will—Slaw should lead the way into a more open world.

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Comments

  1. About anonymous blogging, I disagree with you in the strongest terms. There is a long and valued tradition of anonymous speech, practiced among others in the U.S. by the authors of the Federalist Papers. Not everyone has the protection of tenure or other forms of security that would allow them to express their views in their own names.

    Besides, I don’t think anonymous blogging presents a problem. We need to distinguish between anonymity and pseudonymity here. For bloggers like Publius, Digby, and Atrios here in the U.S., and (for several years) Chet Scoville in Canada, blogging under a familiar pseudonym allows them some protection in their personal and work life while maintaining a brand name known for the cogency of their arguments.

    If you’re really objecting to anonymous comments on blogs, that’s a different matter. One can prohibit anonymous postings, or moderate them, and I have no objection to that. Anonymous comments are often posted by trolls or other sorts of trouble-makers without the sense of responsibilty inculcated by maintaining a public, if pseudonymous, identity.

  2. I agree with this sentiment. Anonymous comments don’t really offer anything of value – they just highlight a lack of courage of people to stand by what they say. It is very easy to be critical anymously, if you have nothing to lose.

  3. I very respectfully, but completely, disagree.

    At this moment there are many organizations that discourage social networking. While I personally would never post an anonymous comment, I believe that there could be a legitimate need for an individual to do so. That legitimate personal need should not trump the ability to communicate.

    I wish for a world that universally values openness. I wish for a world where individuals accept personal responsibility for their actions and words. I would like a world where an individual could make a personal statement and not have to worry about writing a disclaimer that they are not necessarily the voice of their organization.

    I don’t believe that requiring anything other than a hidden email address to post a comment would enhance the flow of ideas that stem from the safe communication that is available by anonymity.

    I would rather put up with a bit of annoying spam, which can be deleted by a moderator, than limit the ability of legitimate timely comments that for one reason or another cannot be made other than anonymously.

  4. You must be a member of Slaw to post, which removes the possibility of anonymous blogging.

    So the issue here is related only to comments, which we delete when in the form of promotional spam. Personally, I would be in favour of a policy that requires:

    1) a functioning email address (which isn’t published anyway); and
    2) requiring a real name (not a service or company), or a single alternative – ‘Anonymous’.

    Our fearless leader is off for a couple days, so we may have to wait to complete this discussion.

  5. Strongly disagree–as someone willing to give my full name and a valid email address in this comment. :)

    Anonymous participation in debate is a vital part of a healthy democracy. The history of pamphletting in the American and French Revolutions shows us that dramatically, but it happens on a smaller scale, from unsigned editorials to open letters to graffiti and postering. The strength of an idea should be judged by its merit, not the identity of its author (or the willingness of its author to self-identify.)

    Anonymous debate does have two problematic features: excacerbation of incivility, and unverifiability of fact claims. Neither of these are new to the online world, but they certainly feature acutely in online debate. However, each of these can be dealt with less drastically. Many blogs (most good ones) review user-content before posting, and if something crosses a line it shouldn’t be published. (That also puts the onus on the publisher to set clear expectations.) Factual inaccuracy can be dealt with the way that we deal with it in any other facet of communication–trust a fact only to the extent that you know and trust its source. If its source isn’t discoverable, it’s a good indicator of how trustworthy the fact is. But neither of these are unmanageable problems.

    There are blogs out there that don’t seem concerned for civility or accuracy (which could also be said about Frank Magazine, any tabloid, or the Obama-as-Hitler posters plastered across the US.) To some extent that’s a market issue–if that’s not your cup of tea, ignore it. If it rises to the level of actionability, then there are recourses for that (as seen in the Canadian model case.) With the right judicial authorization in place, almost no posting is really “anonymous”.

    In short, anonymity has always been an important part of free discussion, and in particularly, of the internet. If you don’t like it, then get your own internet. Don’t break mine.

  6. I must have missed it, but do we ever have anonymous posting (as opposed to comments) on Slaw?

  7. Unless you’re in fear of your life or physical safety, I can’t think of any good excuse to comment anonymously. If you don’t have the courage of your convictions to sign your name to a comment, don’t make it. If your position makes it politically unwise to sign your comment, choose between your position and your desire to speak openly in public. The right to public discourse is not absolute, and it has exactly one concomitant responsibility: back up your opinion with your identity.

    The bile and hatred that passes for commentary on the internet these days, from major news sites to one-person blogs, is revolting. I had occasion to read some of the comments on a popular Canadian political blog the other day and couldn’t believe the vicious ignorance on display, all of it “anonymous.” Blogs like these aren’t going to screen out hateful anonymous comments — they love them, and they want to fan the flames they create. It’s not enough to just ignore anonymous comments, because they lower the bar for everyone else and encourage others to lower it further still. Mobs are anonymous, too.

    No newspaper would print a letter to the editor without the writer’s name, address and phone number. The sooner someone invents a method by which internet comments require similar verification, the better.

  8. I would like to elaborate on my earlier comment as I think the discussion may have gone off on a lawyerly tagent. I think that anymous comments on blog posts offer little of quality – not that people should have no right to be anonymous.

    It doesn’t make an interesting read when you have no idea why someone has a view on this or that. Blogs, like newspapers and all other media, should have some form of quality control, if they want to retain readers.

    Lots of sources can be anonymous and interesting though – but usually a journalist can provde context for why an anonymous source’s views are of interest. When someone posts a comment with no context of why they are saying something, there is little value in that (even if they have the legal right to do so).

  9. Quite frankly, I find it bizarre that some would defend the practice of making anonymous comments on Slaw by referring to the practice of publishing anonymous pamphlets at the end of the eighteenth century. Slaw is a place where ideas, opinions and information can be exchanged among professional—or about to become professional—people in a country where it is unlikely that anything would be said that advocates the overthrow of the government by force. In this context, there can be no possible defence of the right to comment anonymously. The practice is cowardly, an affront to the concept behind Slaw and an insult to the members of its community.

    As several comments have pointed out, the practice in the wider Internet is productive of horrible abuses. I have not the slightest sympathy for the woman “outed” by Google; she got exactly what she deserved and I hope that others like her get the same treatment. Where the conditions of the eighteenth century in pre- and post-revolutionary France and in what is now the United States currently exist—in Iran, China, Russia, and other authoritarian regimes—it may well be the path of prudence to act anonymously if one can, but those conditions do not apply in Canada, the United States, Europe and many other parts of the world.

  10. Angela, I think your last comment raises an excellent point. It’s worth distinguishing between anonymous posting and commenting on blogs (or the internet) in general, and doing the same on Slaw. Many of us may have strong feelings about the former, but – to me, anyways – where one falls on the broader question has only limited relevance to the specific question of anonymity on Slaw. As you rightly note, Slaw is written by and directed towards a primarily professional audience in the legal community. In that context, I would respectfully suggest that the case for anonymity is somewhere between weak and non-existent. I am certainly open to being convinced otherwise, but I agree that since none of us is an 18th century revolutionary, analogies to Thomas Paine or James Madison are not especially helpful.

  11. Maybe there’s a cultural difference going on here. Does Canadian law respect the value of privacy less than American law? Certainly, it appears, not as much as EU law.

  12. Actually, I think the case for anonymity on Slaw is pretty good, too. Lawyers who also publish (whether in the traditional sense, in the mainstream media, or more casually online) run some risks when they do so:

    (1) Having their comments inappropriately attributed to their clients, employers, or academic institutions;
    (2) Having their comments bite back at them if they are ever professionally obligated to advocate a different view on behalf of a client;
    (3) Having their reputations damaged by a comment that is taken out of context.

    For a lot of lawyers who choose to have an academic or a media presence, they accept and manage those risks. But comments on Slaw and other blogs are much more like the kinds of interesting discussions you have at parties or around the lunchroom table. I think it’s healthy for people to have some leeway to make a comment without running the potential risks that come from having their name associated with it.

    For example, I’m in-house counsel for a telecommunications and internet company. I have a lot of professional opinions about legal issues that are important in the industry, but I’m not authorized to be my employer’s spokesperson on the issue. I should have the leeway to bring an intelligent, informed voice to any online discussion without censoring myself to meet the expectations of my employer. (I would never violate privilege of course, which is a separate issue. But I might have some views that differ from my employer’s position, or their chosen PR strategy.)

    I find it bizarre that you would only value a comment if it came from someone who was comfortable putting their name to it. You’re refusing to hear a lot of interesting voices, in that case.

  13. I agree with Kevin Kindred on this one. I believe there is a case for anonymous posting anywhere. It’s not because we live in Canada where our freedom of speech is protected that there are not other risks involved with expressing one’s opinions. There is an argument to be made that if someone posts something and doesn’t want his or her opinions to be associated with those of his colleagues or employers, he may want to remain anonymous.

  14. It’s really easy to get up on a soapbox and rant and rave behind “Anonymous.” It take intellectual honesty to do so under your own name.

    I will take shots at people on my blog – but I do so under my name because I believe if you’re going to dish it out, you should be willing to take it.

  15. I agree with the points that Kevin Kindred has made, so I won’t repeat them.

    It’s easy to dismiss the practice of anonymous blogging as “cowardly,” as long as one is in a relatively safe environment (such as English-speaking North America) and that situation never changes. However, the status quo is impermanent; there will eventually be changes of some kind, and it’s very hard to anticipate what the changes will be and who will experience most of their impact. Moreover, individuals may change their minds and embrace other, even formerly opposing, viewpoints as their own.

    Given the proliferation of cached copies of Web pages, archives, and more powerful search tools, statements posted online can have a very long life, even outliving the convictions of the persons who make them. We’re also still in the early days of Internet-based communications, so we don’t know where the technology will lead us. We ought to be cautious about demanding that everyone identify themselves when it is becoming easier to develop very detailed profiles of people based on publicly available information alone.

    If one does not like anonymous or pseudonymous comments, one needn’t allow them on one’s blog. Moreover, a reader is free to ignore comments made by persons whose identity cannot be verified to his or her satisfaction.

    In some settings, such as Twitter, I am interested in statements because of the persons from whom they originate. In other places, I am far more interested in the content of the statements, and want to evaluate them based on their own merit, rather than any preconceived notions I may have about their sources. I see room for both kinds of statements, comments, and blogs: those that accurately identify their source as a specific individual human being, and those that do not.

    Having said all that, I appreciate the potential for abuse of anonymous or pseudonymous communication. Such communication does have a cost. At the same time, I have seen many abuses of free expression by people who have identified themselves by name. Let’s tread very cautiously in this area. The cure might well be worse than the disease.

  16. Kevin Kindred gives three reasons to support anonymous comments. He says that lawyers face the risk of:

    (1) Having their comments inappropriately attributed to their clients, employers, or academic institutions;

    (2) Having their comments bite back at them if they are ever professionally obligated to advocate a different view on behalf of a client; and

    (3) Having their reputations damaged by a comment that is taken out of context.

    Papers published by lawyers in academic journals, magazines and daily papers frequently have disclaimers: “the views expressed are the author’s own…” Kevin’s first concern would justify having all published papers by lawyers done so anonymously.

    With the availability of Supreme Court factums on the Internet—where anonymity is not possible—it may well create the risk of counsel’s argument in one case coming back to bite him or her. What else is new? Counsel are not necessarily identified with the arguments they make: they are arguing on behalf of a client.

    Of course any reputation can be damaged by a comment taken out of context but isn’t that risk greatly enhanced by the ability of the evilly disposed person to do so anonymously. Again, the argument is over-broad.

    None of these arguments justify anonymity in the context of Slaw.

  17. I don’t use my full name when I comment on Slaw or other blogs simply because I want to retain some semblance of privacy from friends, enemies, potential clients, potential employers, and others. With my name and email address, anyone with reasonable internet skills can quickly uncover my employer, call date (BC Law Society), home address and phone number (Canada411), mortgage particulars and bank (BC Online), SunRun time and photos, a full list of friends (Facebook), resume, photos of my children (Picasa), mother’s maiden name, and probably much more. I control some of this information, but some of it is available to anyone without my control. I don’t want to make it convenient for a searcher to assemble a dossier of every opinion I have ever expressed. I prefer to leave comments without always adding one more detail to my eternal online persona.

    Some of the commenters above have enormously rich, detailed internet “footprints” dating back over a decade, with all kinds of personal/professional minutiae. That’s brave, and it’s not for everyone.

  18. Conflating anonymous comments on others’ blogs with writings by those who publish anonymously with a pseudonym is specious reasoning, at best, and often a disingenuous argument by lawyers smart enough to know better.

    It is in the absolute and unfettered discretionary power of blog owners to control and moderate comments on their own blogs as they see fit, allowing or disallowing some or all anonymous comments based on any criteria whatsoever.

    It is every reader’s right to ignore or to read anything written anonymously or under a pseudonym. (This applies equally to books and web-based journals or blogs.) Intelligent readers can assess the merits of any writing without the aid of accreditation of the author. Published writings are subject to critique and debate by others who may disagree with or support the writings, and who might wish to add their names and accreditation in support of their published writings in response, or not.

    There are laws applicable to defamation and slander, hate speech, and other unlawful communications.

    If those conditions, currently in effect in democracies that purport to value free speech, don’t satisfy one’s concerns, let’s admit that one actually wants to place restrictions on what others may read in published writings beyond one’s control and, perhaps, to suppress contrary viewpoints by naming and shaming or otherwise making unpopular writings regrettable by named authors.

  19. Thanks for weighing in Ed!

    As one of those with an

    enormously rich, detailed internet “footprints” dating back over a decade

    I can say that it’s also the way of the future. Just choose what you do and do not share online.

    Anonymity is a myth. Even those posing as anonymous can have their identities revealed. Currently this can only be done (legally) with a court order, but that is also likely to change.

    The concerns about social shunning or ostracism for political or professional views among lawyers is real and does exist. I would estimate over 90% of the student contributors on Law is Cool opt for anonymous posts, mostly for this reason.

    My personal preference is for complete transparency and full authorship for everything whenever possible, but that’s also brave, and also not for everyone.

  20. Bill Patry felt compelled to discontinue blogging at The Patry Copyright Blog because many readers, in his view, couldn’t be dissuaded from attributing his personal thoughts and opinions on copyright law to his employer, Google, notwithstanding the clear disclaimer on the blog.

    Would it be preferable to have an anonymous copyright blog published by someone as knowledgeable on the subject, or to require the writer to forgo blogging if he couldn’t muster “the courage of his convictions” to blog regardless of the perceived consequences to his employer?

    I fear the answer for many depends on whether they agree with the views expressed by the blogger.

  21. What if, say, Bill Patry were to submit a comment on Michael Geist’s blog, anonymously, so as not to implicate Google? Would we expect Professor Geist to tell the commenter his blog is a “no-wuss zone” and that anonymous commenting is verboten?

  22. The arguments against anonymous posting are compelling, in certain contexts. But how often do we check to see *who* has written something, before we decide whether or not to agree with *what* she has written? When it comes to a factual blog entry, information about the author, the author’s editorial policies, the author’s sources, etc. can be crucial to determine the reliability of the information presented. When it comes to an opinion or argument, it seems to me that the substance is more important than the identity of the speaker. The identity of the speaker often distracts from the question of whether the speaker’s opinion stands up to scrutiny.

    It’s for this reason that I think it’s important to allow anonymous discussions to continue. Obviously, anonymity should be optional, and people can feel free to weigh anonymous comments differently than those which are not.

  23. One should distinguish as well between anonymous = unknown to the reader of the comment, and anonymous = unknown to the managers of the blog. I see comments above from people with first names and last names, but I don’t know who they are. So far as I know, the names may be completely made up for the purposes of the comment. Other names are known to me to be used by people whom I have met in person – though I have not seen their driver’s licences or passports to verify the link between the name and the person.

    But management of Slaw has at least a working email address for everybody who comments. That’s not much identification, as it’s easy to create an email account in a fictitious name. But it gives a modicum of control, as to permanence of identity/pseudonymity, and as to ability to block that source at least.

    The real protection against inappropriate comments is in their deletion – either before they appear, if there is such a problem that the comments need screening, or (fortunately as with Slaw)only afterwards, for the rare comments that are not within the bounds of the discourse of the blog.

    I run a listserv composed mainly of lawyers. Several of them have told me they would not post comments of similar frankness to a blog, where the world could read them (and they are sophisticated enough to know that list comments can be forwarded to the world – but it’s a balance of risk) and some send me comments to post unattributed to them, for some of the reasons noted in earlier comments (largely a disinclination to say things distasteful to present or future clients).

    It does not bother me that the courts can break anonymity for civil and criminal reasons, though one may debate how much evidence of actual harm should be shown before the court does so. But for less critical purposes, it’s up to the blog to decide if anonymity is immaterial (as it is in my view for Slaw) or such a cover for grotesqueries that it should not be allowed, or somewhere in between (e.g. a reason for moderation of the list, moderation in the commenters being absent…)

  24. In many cases horrible problems have been avoided for the community as a result of anonymous blogging. This includes whistleblowing for white-collar criminals, community awareness when sexual predators move into the neighborhood, and many other alerts that are of great community benefit.

    Benefits notwithstanding, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs and anonymous free speech on the Internet is one such omlette. There is no such thing as free speech, there is always a cost. Sometimes that cost is acceptable, moreover desirable, particularly in the case of positive community awareness. But often their many false and deceptive rumors, and libelous attacks are motivated only by hatred and vindictive antisocial promptings. More often than not, these serial cyber defamers have some type of antisocial personality disorder. They have nothing better to do than hurt other people, in fact they are actually fueled by other people’s pain. Normal people like 97% of the readers of my comment cannot begin to relate to how these people think. Stop for a moment and imagine not having a conscience….. is simply impossible.

    A concerted, focused and malicious Internet smear campaign can be as devastating for a person that relies on his or her reputation for employment as a fire can be for a farmer who loses his fields, barns, and livestock.