Rory Cellan-Jones

Anonymous on the internet

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 25 Aug 09, 13:58 GMT

This morning, the Today programme featured a debate on the question of anonymity and blogging, made topical by a couple of cases where bloggers have had their identities revealed against their will.

It featured political gossip blogger Guido Fawkes (aka Paul Staines) and Dr Vince Miller, a University of Kent academic who studies the blogosphere.

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I was asked by the programme's producers to write an audio essay which would act as an introduction to the debate. Here it is:

"According to a famous New Yorker cartoon, on the internet nobody knows you're a dog.

There are two views of that anonymity which has been an essential characteristic of the online world.

Either it allows the free expression of all sorts of interesting and subversive voices that would not otherwise be heard.

Or it makes the web a playground for every noisy and offensive bar-room bore - who doesn't even have to put a name to their ill-considered views.

Now it's becoming evident that this anonymity is, in any case, pretty fragile. Two cases have highlighted that fact.

First there was the police officer behind the award-winning NightJack blog>, revealed as Detective Constable Richard Horton after the Times persuaded a High Court judge that bloggers had no absolute right to keep their identities secret.

Then there was the unnamed female blogger who posted a series of offensive remarks about a Vogue cover model.

A New York judge ordered Google, which hosted the blog, to unmask Rosemary Port after the model Liskula Cohen sued, arguing that the comments were defamatory.

Now Google is on the back foot, accused of violating the blogger's privacy .The search company insists it does care about anonymity, and will only provide information about a user in response to a court order.

So, on both sides of the Atlantic it appears that the law is giving little protection to those who believe the internet should be an anonymous space.

There is too a growing momentum in the blogosphere behind the idea that those who want the world to hear their very strong opinions should have the courage to identify themselves - just as they would in a letter to a newspaper.

But - as recent events in places from Iran to Burma to China have shown - for some people, online anonymity can be a matter of life and death."

What I didn't discuss is an issue that sometimes occupies the writers of this and other BBC blogs - who exactly are the respondents who contribute their views on our posts, and should they remain in the shadows?

For instance, I'd love to know more about people like "ravenmorpheus" or "synthil", "hackerjack" or "mighty morfa power ranger".

Now anonymity is a valuable, indeed vital protection for junior staff inside corporations or public bodies, or people from countries with repressive governments, who would otherwise feel unable to contribute their views or provide valuable information to blogs like this.

But doesn't "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" have more credibility if she writes as Josephine Bloggs of Acacia Gardens?

I'd love to hear your views on this matter - and of course if you wish to remain anonymous, that's your choice.


  • Comment number 1.

    "Dear BBC Blog Contributer

    Thank you for contributing to a BBC Blog. Unfortunately we've had to remove your content below.

    Postings to BBC blogs will be removed if they contain contact details such as phone numbers, postal or email addresses.

    Please do not post your own contact details, or those of others, into the blog."

    My moderated comment did not contain anything that would identify me.

    My screen name does though.

  • Comment number 2.

    In my opinion google shouldnt have revealed who it was. Unless theres a overwhelming public interest to know, such as in the NightJack blog, where peoples personal details are being released although very slightly disguised.
    The problem then of course, is that in the future if their is no guarentee of anonymity then people may be discouraged from realising important leaks from the government etc.
    The Vogue model though has been completely overreacting, are people now going to be sueing people like perez hilton who makes a living off of insulting celebrities and speculating about them? May be good in a way as personally I can't stand him but bloggers should have their right to free speach.

  • Comment number 3.

    I’m sure employers would be interested in Googling to discover which od their staff were spending their work time contributing to blog comments too.

  • Comment number 4.

    Personally I don't mind if we don't share real names, it becomes apparent fairly quickly whether an opinion is valid or not from the content of the post..and discussions are rarely hindered because we don't share names.

  • Comment number 5.

    Well, I never thought I would see myself, in lieu of Twitter, mentioned on a BBC blog!

    Well, I'm a student of Computing Science in Glasgow, that much I can tell you. It is only fair, after all - we know your name, what you look like, your occupation, and could probably locate you, given your earlier blog input on the location of your house via Street View!

    As you can probably tell by the nature of my comments, I believe in a community-, and not a commercially-driven Internet, and I believe that is the only way, the best way to remain anonymous. I would be infinitely more supportive of Twitter if it were managed by a community receiving input through charity, like Wikipedia.

    A community need have little interest in who you are or where you come from, as it only requires your input and the investment of your time.

    A corporation, however much it may invest in a community, has profitability to champion above all else, and if it is profitable to reap personal identification details, store them, sell them off, or allow governments access to them, then they shall do so.

  • Comment number 6.

    The first rule of any blog posting has to be,"Would you say this to a person's face?"

    Common decency, manners and a reasonable social contract is a fundemental requirement for making a public statement commenting on the personal habits, body shape and activities of another individual.

    This of course changes when a Government loses it's sense of humour. A fear of any contrary views inevitably breaks the social contract with the public it is supposed to represent and protect.

    Pamphleteers have traditionally been hated by radical and reactionary governments throughout history, although for all intents and purposes they've no actual physical or political power. It's good to see that these modern-day pamphleteers are still fearded by these hypocritical governments.

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm solidly behind the view that (in democratic states, at least) it's important to stand up and be ready to be identified be a real person behind any public comment (and even more so in private correspondence). Yes, it's traditional on the net to have a "handle"/"nickname"/etc but to be taken seriously I feel it's best to (a) use the one identity consistently and (b) for the connection between that identity and your real self to be readily made.

  • Comment number 8.

    Anonymity is a cornerstone of the internet. I am not surprised that the rich and powerful seek to destroy that. If they succeed then keeping matters such as Oleg, Mandelson and aluminium tariffs from reaching a larger audience becomes much easier (or David Geffen, Mandelson and throwing judicial process out the window in fact). The internet with its anonymity is an aid for whistleblowers everywhere.
    Of course unless you provide proof/your identity then do not be surprised if your revelations are treated no differently than a message sprayed on a wall somewhere.
    If we lost the anonymity of the internet then we lose some of the trolls but they are a small price to pay for the service to truth it provides.

  • Comment number 9.

    Making myself less anonymous in my commenting profile here is hard.. as you don't let me.

    But, as a computer geek, I know there are ways to interact with the internet in such a way as to be virtually untraceable. (Tor, for example.)

    Being anonymous, at times, allows you to tell the truth without repercussions, when telling the truth would normally get you attacked by an online community. I have used an anonymous comment for exactly this purpose in the past. My words were no less relevant, but my identity and reputation remained unspoilt.

    Anonymity can be very important, especially in our society, where our government is slowly, carefully inching us towards being a repressive state. wikileaks, for example, would suffer without anonimity, because of the way that whistleblowers are treated, even for doing the right thing.

  • Comment number 10.

    Interesting post. I actually quite like the anonymity of blogs. You can concentrate on what someone is saying, rather than who they are.

    The logical extension of the "ad hominem" fallacy is that it really doesn't matter who is saying something. The question is whether what they are saying is valid or not. I prefer to judge that on its merits.

    Also, in a world in which we are increasingly being spied on by the government, it feels quite liberating to be able to post anonymously (although it's just an illusion of course, as I'm quite sure that if MI5 were in the slightest bit interested in the real DisgustedOfMitcham2, then it would take them about 5 minutes to find out my address, phone number, and inside leg measurements).

    But it depends on the context. In addition to posting here under a screen name, I also write a blog under my real name elsewhere on the internet. But I'm not saying where.

    BTW, I can't see why anyone would be disgusted living in Tunbridge Wells. It's quite a nice place. Just try living in Mitcham.

  • Comment number 11.

    I'd like to find out more about DisgustedOfMitcham2 as he/she may/may not be local and I don't have many like minded friends (or non like minded friends for that matter! :-))

    or have I given away too much? (I'm a South Londoner - come stalk me!)

  • Comment number 12.

    Whilst I am quite happy to reveal that I am a student at strathclyde, my age where it is relevant to the debate, and other wee extras, I prefer the choice to be wholly mine. If the writer's of this blog (or the bbc as a whole) wish to contact me I would have no objection, as I gave my information, but if a 3rd party/government wants it, then their in for a fight.

  • Comment number 13.

    kirrus1 you explain my feelings on it way more elegantly than I could ever hope to

  • Comment number 14.

    Personally, I love the ability of the Internet to hide the fact that I am not the average middle-class white male that people generally assume are the defacto majority on the Internet.

    We can send anonymous letters in the post. We can publish newsletters on print where there's no verifiable contact. Why should the Internet be any different?

  • Comment number 15.

    The BBC blog is an interesting example. Without wishing to land myself in trouble with the draconian contractors currently moderating it, I refer everyone to the furore over on the PM blog - especially on last week's Beach thread.

    Never mind anonymity of commenters, there has been a rule introduced that makes it a hanging offence to refer, however obliquely, to the contractors!

    One regular has already been banned, and another resigned from BBC blogging completely after receiving an absolutely terrifying email.

    To me, that's a much more interesting and valid story than anonymity of commenters such as myself. Especially as if I do give personal details my comment will be removed....!

  • Comment number 16.

    So, for example, I believe and post as pro-abortion with my real name on what is an anonymous platform (I do not know the people who will read my comment).

    Someone who is an anti-abortion nut can read my comment without revealing their identity and will have a good chance of tracing my physical presence.

    Why would I choose to express my sincerely held beliefs with people I do not know. I may choose to express them in person after evaluating whether the person I am expressing them to is not a loon.

  • Comment number 17.

    Systems like Freenet/FCON, originally developed to enable freedom of speech in repressive regimes, are able to give anonymity. Otherwise, if you are using the public web, you should be aware that your IP address and surfing habits (recorded through cookies and HTTP headers) can be used to reveal who you are.
    TOR is relatively easy to trace. All the tracer needs to do is own or control a large number of TOR nodes, and force their entry nodes to use their exit nodes, in order to correlate the traffic. Don't forget that TOR was originally a project of the US military. In addition, people often forget that TOR only protects part of the traffic - the section from the exit node to the website (or whatever you are connecting to) is not protected, and unless you take precautions cookies and HTTP headers are still there.

  • Comment number 18.

    Some years ago, I was posting on a blog about credit cards (that's how dull my life is) and I received a very disturbing e-mail (in my personal inbox) going on about how credit cards violated Allah's law and how I was going to be beaten up for advocating interest fees etc etc. Since then, I have always used different pseudonyms in different circumstances.

    There is nothing wrong in a blog host disclosing a blogger's identity on receipt of a court order -- that's how it should be. What will happen, particularly because of the publicity afforded the case of the policeman, 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 etc.

    The net result: we won't hear valid, important, informed views from nurses, teachers, bankers, soliders, journalists but we will hear the views of geeks and nutters.

    The solution should be to reform Britain's notorious libel laws and embed a basic right to anonymous free speech.

  • Comment number 19.

    I'm anonymous because I'm told I must not disclose contact details.

    Actually I am happy to remain anonymous too, most of the time, here and elsewhere, and tend not to use the same nickname (or e-mail address) for different discussion areas.

    It's not my screen name or real life name that should be important, but whether I 'talk' (write) sense or not.

    Answering some question, or furthering debate, is surely the reason for comments being posted, apart from each original blog post, effectively a 'leader' article.

    However with various bits of new media coming about, I think the terminology is getting confusing. Gone are the days of simple discussion on a BBS (Bulletin Board System) as we not have a wealth of methods for 'comment' some better than others (I'm hinting at FaceBook, Twitter and so on, things I don't actually use, plus cranky bespoke systems, such as being used this minute).

  • Comment number 20.

    It's been said that you should never write down anything that you wouldn't want repeated before a court of law, therefore anonymity does not preclude or excuse the blog contributer. The rules for engaging in this manner seem fair and sensible to me, if only to encourage lively debate. However, there are some individuals in this world who would "come round your house" if you were identifiable. Unlike the BBC site, this is made quite clear by the comments on some of the lesser or unmoderated blogs. Anonymity means safety within the rules, annoying as they can be when you have a spleen to vent - just don't go breaking them.

  • Comment number 21.

    I don't see what is to be gained by losing anonymity. What difference does it make if the person is really called Peter Smith instead of pretending to be called Peter Smith? I don't know them, and never will, apart from their contributions under that name.

    Personally, I use the same username across the net (apart from here - I've got no idea where that username came from and can't change it!) but (obviously) I use my real name for work.

    I don't want someone from my work-life googling my name and finding my posts on gaming, religion or politics; not because I don't stand by those comments, but because I don't want someone to jump to conclusions about me without having the opportunity to defend myself. As someone else said, readers are anonymous. I say things online that are perfectly within the rules in those fora but which would be unacceptable in a work setting, where discussion of sensitive topics (e.g. religion) is not generally allowed.

    I'm not ashamed of what I write, but I want to be able to write it without fear of negative repercussions.

  • Comment number 22.

    @synthil Have you heard of ? While not quite a non-profit, it's all FOSS and CC and open standards, so is almost there.

  • Comment number 23.

    "But doesn't "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" have more credibility if she writes as Josephine Bloggs of Acacia Gardens?"
    Sure they have more credibility. But it also should be entirely up to the poster if they want to give that added element of credibility to their posts. People could choose whether or not to believe NightJack's posts based on the information contained within. If they chose not to believe based on a lack of a real name then fair enough, it didn't need a judge to decide for us whether the information was credible. NightJack had a right to reveal to us the information he chose.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 25.

    I have a real name. I use this in real life. I have a nick name, which I use in real life. This is like most people. Face to face, people call me by either. It makes no difference to how people communicate with me in person.

    I have a screen name, which I use on a screen. I use the same name on any website or service.

    I answer to all three names. My persona online is no different to my persona offline. I see no reason for the two personas to meet up. People who know me personally know my screen name, as you do too. There's no reason for anyone on this site to know my real name is(n't) Jacob Jacobson XXXVI - it makes no difference.

    At my end here, you speak to Yeebok, you also speak to Jacob Jacobson the 36th. Either way I'll read and interpret it. As with the nickname/real name, it makes no difference, so long as you're consistent.


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