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« No-one should think this stuff is easy | Main | Good morning, thing »

The right to moan

By Dave Birch posted Aug 28 2009 at 6:26 PM

[Dave Birch] I've been following a few discussions about online anonymity, triggered by a couple of stories about bloggers identities being disclosed for one reason or another. One of them was the ridiculous story about an outraged model.

Of course, pretty much no one would have seen such a blog if Cohen hadn't gone legal about it, claiming (with no proof) that she was losing jobs because of it (which seems difficult to believe).

[From Outed Blogger Plans To Sue Google; Skank Model Mess Gets Messier | Techdirt]

This what they call on the interweb the "Streisand effect", but of course in these knowing post-modern times it could all be a clever publicity stunt and the model is not being stupid by cynically wasting taxpayers money to attract attention. Anyway, the point is that this story got yet another discussion about internet anonymity going. The general tone of the discussions in the media appears to be the usual unthinking "if you've got nothing to hide...".

I take a different view. Most people do not have anonymity, it's a myth. If I log on to The Guardian's "Comment is Free" and post something about the destruction of the public finances under the name "General Wolfe of Quebec", I am not really acting anonymously because it is trivial (as the recent headline stories have proved) to determine the IP address that the post came from and then go to the ISP to get the account. So although the Internet seems anonymous to people who don't understand it (eg, models, politicians), it isn't. And it's not obvious whether that is good or bad. If you're trying to track down someone posting child pornography (the usual short-circuit for the argument) then it's bad, but if you're trying to complain about the treatment of political prisoners in your country, then it's good. And what's more, whether your blogging is anonymous or not depends on the technology, not on the constitution or the judiciary.

As Ben Laurie has so clearly pointed out, unless the connection layer is anonymous, nothing else matters.

[From Digital Identity Forum: Internet]

I think that at a minimum bloggers should have conditional anonymity: that is, they should be able to use a pseudonym that is only connected to them on the production of a court order. This cannot be achieved by depending on the service providers: even if they operate with good will,

Computer scientists have recently undermined our faith in the privacy-protecting power of anonymization, the name for techniques for protecting the privacy of individuals in large databases by deleting information like names and social security numbers. These scientists have demonstrated they can often 'reidentify' or 'deanonymize' individuals hidden in anonymized data with astonishing ease.

[From SSRN-Broken Promises of Privacy: Responding to the Surprising Failure of Anonymization by Paul Ohm]

What this, I think, implies is that there will be blogging platforms that spring up in the US to operate under the provisions of protected free speech legislation and beyond the vagaries of UK libel laws and, over time, the most interesting and valuable blogs will migrate in that direction. Those platforms will provide authenticated pseudonymous identities (using, as I repeatedly wish for, 2FA OpenID or something similar) that are contingent on cryptography. How is the nurse going to blow the whistle on a drunk surgeon without pseudonymity?

Why do I post anonymously? Well, I not only write for a number blogs of but I also regularly post on other blogs and message boards. I enjoy discussion and debate -- that's how I learn stuff -- and sometimes I just enjoy venting, or tormenting people who say stupid things. When I first started, I would just post as me all the time. This changed when I was involved in a message board discussion about the financial services industry -- in fact, the regulation of the European financial services sector -- and I received a threatening personal e-mail from someone telling me that they were going to attack me (physically) because of some regulation I was advocating. There were a couple of other similar incidents over time and eventually I decided to use a number of pseudonyms, some of which are known to people who know me and a couple of which are private.

The truth is that sometimes you won't post what you actually think about something if you are worried that it will upset your employer, or a customer, or a friend. I know that people go over the top with the abuse in message boards precisely because of the "anonymity" but what does that matter in the big scheme of things? And why shouldn't people have one identity for the "Changing Rooms" message board and another identity for the "UK Finance" message board? Those message board identities are, in essence, different people: they're not related and it's nobody's business but mine that the virtual identities are connected to me.

There is nothing wrong with a (say) US blog host disclosing a blogger's identity on receipt of a US court order -- that's how it should be. What will happen, particularly because of the publicity afforded the case of the British policeman "NightJack", is that many people will feel uncomfortable posting about their experiences in various organisations and that will not help the public good. But people who do want to post anonymously will be driven to use offshore services that are beyond the reach of the courts, and we probably don't want that either, do we?

Sorry about the unthinking rant. My point is that pseudonymity should be part of a national identity management infrastructure. It's really not that complicated.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


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