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Nov 03 2011

Anonymity and the online social contract

There’s a really interesting discussion happening over at Almost Diamonds about whether or not bloggers have an obligation to protect the identity of abusive or threatening commenters:

While the balance of power may be in our favor in dealing with the pseudonymous/anonymous Hoggle, it isn’t necessarily for anyone who deals with his secret identity. I know something about how he behaves when he thinks he can get away with it that they don’t. I know how obsessive he can be. I know how weirdly he can interpret things to put himself in the right. I know how angry he is about feminism. And I know that he’s capable of combining that anger with sexual release. What I don’t know is how that translates into his real life. I still know more than any woman from whom he’s hiding his blog.

So the challenge is this: Knowing what I know, having the information I do, give me agood reason why I’m not morally obligated to attach his real name to this kind of behavior as publicly as I can.

My initial position is that the blogger who goes by the name “John Hoggle” (which makes him sound like a character from Harry Potter) shouldn’t be ‘outed’, because in general people have a right to anonymity. Many people rely on anonymity online to protect themselves from legitimate threats. The more I thought about it, though, I realized that I don’t believe that for a second:

There absolutely is a line, however. There is a line when it stops being speech, and starts being violence. There is a difference between criticizing ideas and attacking individuals based on group membership. There is a difference between speaking out against the actions of an individual who is harming someone and encouraging people to harm that individual. Once you are using speech to enact punishment on someone who is different from you, you’ve stepped outside the realm of free speech an into the realm of inciting violence.

And elsewhere:

You don’t get to have it both ways – you can’t hide behind free speech protections and then refuse to answer questions. If you have an opinion and you demand the right to express it, then you ought to express it. Hiding behind the principle of free speech to defend your bigotry – and Mr. Wilders is nothing but a bigot, to be clear – is a perversion of the idea of free speech. The whole point of a free speech law is to defend people’s right to engage in legitimate discussion and criticism, not as a skirt to hide behind like a frightened bully whose victim stands up for itself.

While I certainly do support the principle of anonymity, I do not support using it as a way of shielding hateful, non-constructive abuse. At that point your opinions have stopped being reasonable criticisms of an idea you oppose and have become a weapon to use against people you disagree with. While I don’t think it should be a legal issue, you should absolutely be made to stand by your opinions when they turn into personal attacks. Protecting anonymity in the name of protecting individuals becomes moot when it is used to attack other individuals. You give up your own protection at that point, and if you believe what you’re saying is right, then you should be willing to stand behind it.

I have never found it necessary to spell out a policy for commenting. In general I do not moderate or block comments, but I’ve never really had the need to. I generally agree that online anonymity is important, and I will respect even the wishes of those who I disagree with, no matter how heated the discussion might get. That being said, I will respect that right up until the point where I decide it crosses the line between debate and abuse. Then I will have no compunction about publishing personal details. My threshold is pretty high, and I will most often warn people when they’re about to get spanked, but I will ignore any crying ‘foul’ if I don’t deign to warn you.

I have a year’s worth of comments that you can sort through if you want to get a flavour of how high my tolerance is (Here is an example of what happens when I lose my temper – grassrute is still welcome here and does occasionally comment). More often than not, I am the one in the conversation being abusive, which is a privilege I reserve for myself as the author of this blog. So far nobody has even come close to the kind of persistent abusive behaviour that would trigger me to release personal information. You’ll have lots and lots of warning before it gets there, trust me.

Anyway, go haunt Stephanie’s hallowed halls for a while – join the conversation!

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33 comments

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  1. 1
    Greg Laden

    On that other thread, John Hooogle (or whatever his name is) stated that he does not care if he is outed. Right?

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Seems that way to me.

  3. 3
    Greg Laden

    There is clearly no rush to judgement here.

  4. 4
    Michael Swanson

    I do my best to avoid these problems by posting under my real name. While I’m generally a pretty nice guy, but I’ve had my share of flying off the handle in discussion forums in the past. It’s easy to tell someone to fuck off and die when it’s Vad3r69 or zombiekiller9000 mouthing off. I’ll still do it when some misogynist shithead is trolling around a thread about rape or something, but I know that with some effort I can be Googled, that there is a record of what I’ve said.

    I think pseudonyms and anonymous posts are for people with something to hide, although I will readily contend that having something to is not automatically bad. For instance, being an atheist with a unique name in a small Southern town is a perfectly fine reason to stay anonymous sometimes. Or, of course, just being a woman in an internet full of asshole manboys. Being one of ten or so Michael Swanson’s in ultra-liberal Portland, Oregon, I don’t have to worry too much.

    (The guy that will come up if you Google me is a psychopath that brutally murdered two people in the Midwest. Horrifying, but also a Google-buffer for me. When he’s no longer news prospective employers — or my Republican mother! — may not have trouble finding my religion-hating, conservative-loathing, godless, vegan, liberal pansy comments on various blogs!)

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    religion-hating, conservative-loathing, godless, vegan, liberal pansy comments

    I’m pretty sure Dick Armey started a Super-PAC to have you deported just for writing that :P

    For many (myself included), blogging under a pseudonym helps create a psychological wall between online activities and their professional life. It’s trivially easy to find out who I am, but I can at least keep it fairly clearly delineated. Or at least I like to pretend I can.

  6. 6
    Greg Laden

    Wait … Michael Swanson is my home boy!

    And we are all deeply embarrassed.

  7. 7
    Michael Swanson

    Crommunist is a pseudonym?! I’m so disappointed. I thought you had the most badass name in the world.

  8. 8
    Crommunist

    No. My real name is Hammer T. Ninjastar

  9. 9
    Michael Swanson

    That’s about the fourth best.

  10. 10
    Glenn Davey

    Different bloggers attract different commenters.

    Greg Laden attracts commenters that are persnickety and anal retentive.
    PZ Myers attracts commenters who are abusive and furiously tribal — he spends a great deal of time on moderation.

    Then there’s people like Crommunist and The Friendly Atheist who don’t have to do much moderation at all, if any.

    To all the bloggers out there: what do YOUR commenters say about YOU?

  11. 11
    ambera

    “To all the bloggers out there: what do YOUR commenters say about YOU?”

    Gee, I dunno, what does it say? When a female blogger expresses a feminist opinion and gets an avalanche of rape/death threats and is told to shut up, does that say something about her?

  12. 12
    Makoto

    I agree with your earlier comment here – using a pseudonym helps me keep things delimited (personal commenting/blogging vs “real life” / professional stuff), even though it’d be quite simple for some enterprising person to link this with who I really am.

    Do I care if I’m outed? Not really. What I post is what I post, and I tend not to post anything that I’d be worried about following me around for quite some time (what goes on the internet stays on the internet, after all). Even if I was outed, the people who are important to me already know how I feel, for the most part, even if they don’t agree with me.

  13. 13
    Allienne Goddard

    Gotta ask: What does the “T” stand for?

  14. 14
    Allienne Goddard

    To me, any question like this runs up against the same issue: When is it appropriate do something against one’s principles? Principles, like “Don’t kick people down the stairs”, “Drink seven glasses of water each day”, or, more pertinently, “Respect anonymity”, are all guidelines to action and must be broken when circumstances warrant. Sometimes it is because of another principle, like “Prevent harm to innocents”, or “Jerks should suffer”, which can certainly be rationally or at least poetically defended. The danger, I think, comes when either the principles or facts are not clear because of interpretation.

    Kant, famously, argued that one should only act according to principles that one would wish to become universals. Following this idea, are you ready to allow and accept that any other individual may decide that a statement is abusive, and they are therefore justified in revealing a person’s true identity? I noticed that grassrute seemed to think that you were abusive of christians and inviting violence towards them. Would grassrute be justified in outing you, or perhaps another blogger with more to fear?

    I’m not a Kantian, but I think his dictum has a certain power, in that it is extremely difficult to defend an action as ethical if it depends only on one’s own judgment and insight. It certainly leads to: “You did it, so you can’t complain if I do the same.”

  15. 15
    Michael Swanson

    “To all the bloggers out there: what do YOUR commenters say about YOU?”

    Yeah, I don’t about that one either. The biggest part of PZ’s blog’s problem is that it’s following is enormous. That makes it a target for people who need to bellow in a crowded room. Plus, he’s direct, and too many people can’t tell the difference between forthright and an asshole (as is evident by the entirety of the internet).

  16. 16
    Brian Lynchehaun

    “Kant, famously, argued that one should only act according to principles that one would wish to become universals.”

    Kinda. It’s not about ‘liking’, it’s about the concept being self-defeating. The key example that Kant has is of promise-breaking.

    If everyone were to break promises, people would be less inclined to make promises in the first place, essentially eliminating promise-making from the world. Ergo, if everyone were to break promises, promises would cease to be made, making promise-breaking impossible. A contradiction, meaning that that we have a Perfect Duty to not break promises.

    In terms of this:

    What kind of world would it be if we outed the private information of all people who used anonymity to attack others?

    This statement isn’t Categorical enough for Kant’s ideas to work. To enlarge:

    What kind of world would it be if we eliminated all privacy online?

    Would people still go online? Probably, yes. Ergo, the idea is not self-defeating. If the extreme case is not self-defeating, then the smaller case (of loss of anonymity when passing a certain threshold) is also not self-defeating.

    Thus Kant would be fine with this particular practice.

    It certainly leads to: “You did it, so you can’t complain if I do the same.”

    Kant would not be cool with that. The mere fact that someone else behaves unethically doesn’t not eliminate my ethical duties, in any way, shape or form.

    (Brian is also not a Kantian, but spent a lot of time studying Ethics)

  17. 17
    Michael Swanson

    “You did it, so you can’t complain if I do the same.”

    Surely the first wrongdoer has no right complain if others follow suit, especially if it is in response to the first wrong, but whether it is appropriate for any others to commit the same act relies on a simple concept: is it, in and of itself, right or wrong? Would it be the correct thing to do at any time, or is it just tit-for-tat pettiness?

  18. 18
    Allienne Goddard

    True, in Kant’s view, principles that led to contradictions were no-nos, but that is exactly because appropriate principles must be universal. For example, “Stealing things is good; you should do it” works perfectly fine as a principle as long as it isn’t universal. The contradiction of stealing abolishing property and thereby becoming impossible can only happen if the principle is a universal. In any case, I wasn’t advocating a Kantian analysis of the issue, but simply referencing his call for universal principles.

    People like rules to apply to everyone equally. If you make a rule allowing or requiring individual judgment, it won’t work very well, because people vary in the accuracy of their judgment. So, if we say, “People should be outed if one thinks they are being abusive.”, it invites the obvious problem of people who one likes and supports being outed because one’s opponents see their comments as abusive. Such a rule would, I think, seriously undermine anonymity, which after all is intended to shield individuals who are making controversial statements.

  19. 19
    Crommunist

    This same line of argument came up over at Stephanie’s blog. We are not dealing with a situation where we have to answer the question “is it morally justifiable to out someone”, but rather “is there a time at which is it morally justifiable to out someone”. Kant’s reasoning must therefore be applied to the answer to that question. I propose that when someone is being abusive and has been cautioned to stop, it is entirely within your rights to do it. If I were posting on a creationist site and they warned me repeatedly to stop but I refused to heed that warning, I couldn’t very well cry foul when they follow through on their threat, even if I thought my comments were totally reasonable.

  20. 20
    Allienne Goddard

    God, no! Not Kant! Please! I promise I’ll never say his name on the Internet again!

    I will not criticize whatever decision those in the know make in the Hoggle situation. I’m not personally involved, and people have to do as they think best. I’m looking at what the outcome will be for the principle of protecting anonymity, and I fear that innocents may be hurt if this principle is undermined. If it were a clear-cut case of threats, confessions of illegal intentions, and so on, that would be one thing. I just think “hateful, non-constructive abuse” is so open to interpretation that it would be dangerous in general.

    I actually think the case against Hoggle for morphing and refusing to cease commenting is a stronger basis on which to out him. It’s not more serious or hateful, but it is fairly clear cut (assuming the evidence of him morphing is sound). Provided, of course, that outing him was likely to cause him to go back to his own or other friendly blogs to rant.

  21. 21
    Crommunist

    Let’s assume that we agree that it is theoretically possible that there is a “line” where some kinds of statements that would be considered “abuse” on one side are considered “reasonable criticism” on the other. In the particular case of Hoggle, we’re not anywhere near that line. The number of innocents who could conceivably be hurt if the line for outing is drawn somewhere near Hoggle levels of asshattery is near-zero. It’s beyond me to imagine that anyone would consider his type of behaviour reasonable, or that it is more important to protect the feelings of someone who is so unrepentantly hateful than it is to protect the feelings of his victims.

  22. 22
    Allienne Goddard

    It’s beyond me to imagine that anyone would consider his type of behaviour reasonable, or that it is more important to protect the feelings of someone who is so unrepentantly hateful than it is to protect the feelings of his victims.

    Uh, really? This is the Internet, after all. For example, it seems very likely to me that there are indeed christians who would defend their outing of an atheist blogger because the blogger said “abusive” things about religion and “invited violence” upon them. You and I could disagree with their interpretation, but I don’t expect that they would be convinced. It would be preferable to have a principle without a line that is so open to dispute. Anyway, that’s how I see it.

  23. 23
    Crommunist

    “This is the internet, after all” can be used just as much to justify outing someone as not outing someone. There are certainly people who would confuse personal attack with criticism. They would be demonstrably wrong in their conclusion. Let’s not muddy the discussion by trying to obey a rule made for idiots. We can derive a more practical rule that, like most things (especially in law) are context-specific. If someone had been warned specifically and explicitly that their behaviour was unwelcome and abusive, and they persisted in it anyway, would you still say that it is unacceptable to out them? If so, why?

  24. 24
    Allienne Goddard

    “This is the internet, after all” can be used just as much to justify outing someone as not outing someone. There are certainly people who would confuse personal attack with criticism. They would be demonstrably wrong in their conclusion. Let’s not muddy the discussion by trying to obey a rule made for idiots. We can derive a more practical rule that, like most things (especially in law) are context-specific

    It wasn’t a justification, I was saying that there are more assholes/idiots on the Internet than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I’m also afraid that we don’t get to pick and choose who is part of the online world. If you create this justification, I would expect it to be used by people with whose reasons we would not agree. That will not matter to them, however.

    If someone had been warned specifically and explicitly that their behaviour was unwelcome and abusive, and they persisted in it anyway, would you still say that it is unacceptable to out them? If so, why?

    If they persist on their own or friendly blogs, I personally wouldn’t out them for the reasons I explained in my previous three comments. As I said in my second comment, if the issue is that they won’t accept the ban and leave one alone, or if they send abusive emails after being asked to stop, then I think that harassment is unambiguous and outing them could be justified.

    In other words, the issue would be trespassing rather than assault.

  25. 25
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Surely the first wrongdoer has no right complain if others follow suit, especially if it is in response to the first wrong, but whether it is appropriate for any others to commit the same act relies on a simple concept: is it, in and of itself, right or wrong?

    Why don’t they have a right to complain?

    Do we, or do we not, have the right to complain when someone wrongs us? (essentially: do we have the right to use our freedom of speech to voice our discomfort when things that we don’t like happen to us?)

    I’d argue that we do.

    It’s still wrong to bully a bully, and the receiving-bully still has the right to complain about it. There’s nothing about their acts that suspends their *fundamental* freedoms.

  26. 26
    Crommunist

    I think by ‘complain’ she meant ‘cry foul’. It is hypocritical to decry the actions of others when you’ve committed those actions yourself without recognizing they are wrong always as opposed to only when you do it.

  27. 27
    Brian Lynchehaun

    People like rules to apply to everyone equally. If you make a rule allowing or requiring individual judgment, it won’t work very well, because people vary in the accuracy of their judgment.

    And this is where Kantian ethics breaks down, and why they’re not the main thrust of current Ethical discussions.

    Rules *don’t* apply to everyone equally. Rules require individual judgement.

    Is it wrong to lie? Well, it depends: what are the consequences of the lie, in this particular case?

    Kant doesn’t care about that. Kantian ethics are staunchly opposed to this kind of ‘particular case’ reasoning: either it’s always bad, or it’s never bad. And this kind of black-and-white think is entirely useless when it comes to serious ethical reasoning.

    Anonymity is not a universal right, that is never trumped. Anonymity is a priviledge that is extended by those who have the power to remove it, in so far as you play by their rules.

    Your ‘trespass’ argument is interesting, but fails for the following reason:

    Let’s take the example of the outspoken atheist on a theist site. They’ve been warned multiple times, they keep ‘mouthing off’ (as the theists see it). If the atheist agrees to turn all the disagreement down to zero, but stay on the site, would the theists be ok with that? For many: yes they would. Their objection isn’t to the *presence* of the atheist (i.e. trespass), but to the statements being made (i.e. perceived assault).

    Regardless of the legal labels here, you seem to be in general agreement with the idea that “abusive behaviour warrants outing”. (note my lack of the word ‘always’ here)

    If we’re talking about your own website, the first thing you have to acknowledge that if you want to be anonymous on the web, in a serious and real way, then you need to obscure your information adequately. People have the right to free speech. If they have your information, sharing that information is free speech.

    Absolutely: if they share it with people who wish you harm, they are an accomplice to the subsequent crime. But there’s no principle I can think of that disallows them sharing that information in the absence of harm.

    It would be preferable to have a principle without a line that is so open to dispute.

    There are no such principles. Language is fuzzy. Lines are (subsequently) fuzzy. Interpretation is therefore open to dispute. The ‘openness’ usually depends on people’s emotive state, rather than the particular fuzziness itself (i.e. people passionate about the topic are more likely to push more radical interpretations than people who really don’t care about the issue).

    I personally wouldn’t out them for the reasons I explained in my previous three comments.

    Which is different from the question that Crommunist asked: “would you still say that it is unacceptable to out them?”

    The question isn’t “would you do it?”, the question is regarding the general acceptability of the outing.

  28. 28
    Brian Lynchehaun

    It is hypocritical to decry the actions of others when you’ve committed those actions yourself without recognizing they are wrong always as opposed to only when you do it.

    I agree that it’s hypocritical.

    They are *still* entitled to cry foul/complain/any other word you like.

    Prison rape is always wrong, regardless of who is getting raped and what crime they committed outside. Breaking the legs of a leg-breaker is always wrong.

    Someone always has the right to say “hey, my rights are being violated here”. I’m not saying that you have to be emotionally sympathetic. Hate the scumbag all you like: they still have the right to talk about the violations of their rights.

  29. 29
    Greg Laden

    This entire conversation (and the one on Stephanie’s blog) is invalid. Even Kant cant help.

    There is no authority. There are no rules or laws. There are only practices, and the Internet is very very large and the events in question are very very small. If Franc Hoggle is outed by a named person, there will only be short term and immediate effects. This is like an Asian lion pondering the ethics of killing and eating a deer, and the effects of that moment of thought on Antelopes in Africa. The system being affected here is small and hardly even exists.

    There are also these three pragmatic problems: 1) Hoggle’s name is known, as far as I can tell, to dozens of people at this point, because he bragged. He outed himself to someone, and that person talked to someone who talked to someone. Hoggle outed himself in meat space, in snail-time. This conversation should be about “outing” Hoggle in cyberspace as he has outed himself in meat space. 2) Hoggle has explicitly stated that he does not care if he is outed. Therefore, the effects of outing him will always be ambiguous. This is like someone breaking a promise in Kant’s thought experiment but then you look more closely and you Kant really tell if a promise was broken. 3) Since so many people know who Hoggle is, and there is so much discussion about this issue, isn’t it likely that if someone really wants to bother to out the insignificant creep they’d figure out a way of doing it autonomously? I Kant imagine why not.

  30. 30
    Greg Laden

    autonomously?? autonomously??? DAMN YOU AUTOCORRECT!!!!

    Anonymously. Well, both, I guess.

  31. 31
    Brian Lynchehaun

    Thank you for pointing out that this conversation won’t achieve the goal that no-one has claimed as the goal.

  32. 32
    Greg Laden

    No problem, it was a pleasure.

  33. 33
    Jadehawk

    he spends a great deal of time on moderation.

    point of interest: this is actually not correct; and what moderating he does do has nothing to do with the supposedly “abusive and furiously tribal” commenters there and a lot to do with trolls from, for example, ERV’s blog.

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