Sunday, December 09, 2007

Is There a Right To Comment Anonymously?

For the record, this post isn't written in response to anything that's happened on this site. Barring anything unforeseen, I don't expect to in any way hamper anonymous commenting on this site. And while I know theoretically it's possible to track down someone's identity via their IP address, I neither know nor care to know how to go about that.

But I do wonder whether or not people have any reasonable expectation of maintaining their anonymity when they comment on someone else's blog. I fully acknowledge and respect the right of people to start their own blog anonymously. There are many people who, for a variety of reasons, either couldn't or wouldn't write if their identities were publicly known. I read many of these bloggers myself, and I know the blogosphere is better for it. But that's at their own place. What about at other blogs? Is the blog-host who threatens to expose an abusive, trollish, or otherwise hostile anonymous commenter completely out of line?

On the one hand, it is obvious that not guaranteeing anonymity would deter certain people from commenting -- most notably the aforementioned people who blog anonymously. While I actually know of some anonymous bloggers who leave comments under their real name (but who don't link their name to their anonymous blog), many would be uncomfortable even with that. And furthermore, this strategy still blocks participation by their anonymous personas. A comment by "PG" is more meaningful than one by "Pam Gomez" (name deliberately chosen so that it has no chance of being anything close to PG's actual name, which I don't know), because even though they're the same person, I can link PG to her broader array of work, while I have no idea who Pam Gomez is.

On the other hand, anonymity has its fair share of problems. For one, if my blog is my house, I kind of have a right to know who is visiting -- particularly if they are slinging muck my way. People undoubtedly behave worse when they don't feel accountable to their real-world reputation. And, stepping across another line, if someone is being stalked or harassed online, anonymity can be very dangerous. Some blogs which depend on their commenters for credible, inside information (like Brian Leiter's) often don't allow anonymous comments at all because they aren't as trustworthy.

I think the norms of the blogosphere have developed so that, unless specifically told otherwise, an anonymous commenter can expect that her anonymity will be preserved unless specifically told otherwise. I do, however, think it is within a blogger's rights to warn an offensive commenter that, if she returns, her anonymity is forfeit. My house, my rules, so long as I give fair notice.


Anonymous said...

The day you begin a witch hunt for names of people that offend you is the day that you become that which you decry. An Intruder upon a persons personal freedoms.

Its my house and my rules? Do you know how Republican that sounds? How are you going to defend this statement to the dean of the College you wish to teach. Perhaps 20 years from now when you are nominated for the supreme court they will ask

"What did you mean sir when you said on your Blog in 2007 that "You have the right to deny someone their rights to free speech because its your house?"

My aim is to not agree or disagree with what you say but to help you understand that when you post your name and your ideas in black and white for the ENTIRE world to see then you one day just MIGHT have to defend those ideas.

Anonymously is why many of us comment. We can roll up our sleeves and say what we really feel without having to worry about political correctness.

Unknown said...

I don't think it's appropriate to just "out" an anonymous poster. But if I had a blog I would seriously consider blocking anonymous comments or (if that option isn't available for some reason) deleting them as a matter of course.

Off Colfax said...

Unlike the above Anonymous, I fail to see the moral difficulty caused by fair warning issued to abusive commenters hiding behind a veil of anonymity. I personally insist that my chosen pseudonym accompany every comment that I type, regardless of the political leaning of the site. Certainly, it has caused some rather disturbing individuals to follow me to my virtual home, like lost puppies looking for a shoe to chew on. That is the danger of leaving a trail, after all. Yet it does help to maintain my credibility, if only for myself.

Unfortunately, people will abuse the veil of identity occlusion in order to make life miserable for those with whom they disagree. Regretfully, this is simple human nature, and will remain so for as long as there are humans alive. Given that datum point, a weather eye turned to the actions and words of the anonymous is a necessary and unavoidable requirement.

Yet action should only be taken when a commenter is being abusive or whose comment espouses illegal actions. Two examples: Deb Frisch, who harassed Jeff Goldstein and left disturbing comments regarding Jeff's young son to the point of legal action, and "Josh Evans", the MySpace identity behind those who drove Megan Meier to commit suicide last month. Extreme examples? Most certainly. Yet are they applicable? Again, most certainly.

So no. You are not out of line "to expose an abusive ... or otherwise hostile anonymous commenter" in any fashion. As the old adage says: Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. If a person chooses to use anonymity to cloak their hostile actions (and possibly illegal) in this way on your blog, then you have every right as a blog host to expose their identities.

As to trolls, to me that is a different subject entirely. After a blog reaches a certain critical threshold, the development of a troll population is inevitable. So the question must be whether the troll population has a beneficial use or is simply there to cause difficulty.

Beneficial trolls are those whose comments keep your arguments on the straight and logical path. A beneficial troll will point out your fallacies faster than a philosophy professor and force you to become a better writer. (If only out of self-defense.)

An abusive troll has only what utility you assign to them. Whether it be comic relief, continuous proof that George Carlin's line "Think about how stupid the average person is, and then realize that half of them are stupider than that." is more prophetic than humorous, or (in my case) concrete evidence that someone actually has read your blog, their utility is solely dependent on you.

So trolls, in and of themselves, can still remain useful members of society. So long as they remain within the realm of the moral, credible, and logical, their population should be maintained. Only when they cross the boundary between trolling and abuse should they be restricted.

PG said...

I'm not worried about the trolls who abuse me; I never ban one who does such, although after a certain point I give up trying to pretend they're reasonable people worth having a discussion with.

I do worry about the trolls who abuse other people on my site. I am inclining toward Daniel Solove's view that Section 230 gives far too much leeway for people to put up sites that either are for the express purpose of gossip and libel (juicy campus), or degenerate toward that purpose (autoadmit).

As for this claim:
Anonymously is why many of us comment. We can roll up our sleeves and say what we really feel without having to worry about political correctness.

In my experience, when people whine that they don't want to have to be "politically correct," what they really mean is that they don't want to exhibit even as much of the good manners and good sense of a goat. If you're a flaming racist, either keep your opinions constrained to a discussion among the like-minded, or prepare to have other people condemn you -- by name -- for what you say. This is distinct from what you think; you can think whatever you want, and if no one hears about it except your diary, no one should invade your privacy to dig into your mind. But once you put your nastiness into public, the public may bite back.