Monday, November 26

Accounting For Anonymity: The License To Kill

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is an international non-profit advocacy and legal organization that is dedicated to preserving free speech rights such as those guaranteed by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

One of the cornerstone arguments is the right to say things online that will not be connected with our offline identities, as we may be concerned about political or economic retribution, harassment, or even threats to our lives. As someone who has long valued free speech, I agree with tempered reservation.

The reservation comes from something that is often missed in discussing anonymity: it is often abused as a license to kill. What is missed is that being anonymous demands even more authenticity, sensitivity, and responsibility than those who operate outside the realm of cloaked avatars and general deflection.

CEO John Mackey Poses As An Average Investor

A few weeks ago, Whole Foods Market Inc.'s board, overreacting to anonymous postings by its chief executive, amended the company's corporate governance to sharply restrict online activities by its officials.

The new code bars top executives and directors from posting messages about Whole Foods, its competitors, or vendors on Internet forums that aren't sponsored by the company. If there was ever a case for attempting to pander to the public and perhaps the Securities Exchange Commission during an investigation, this is it.

It was never about what was posted, but rather the deceptiveness of comments made under a fake persona. In this case, the messenger is the message.

State Investigates Political Blogger After Anonymous Tip

Chuck Muth is president and CEO of Citizen Outreach and a professional political consultant. He is well known for his conservative viewpoints, well-thought arguments, and biting commentary.

In early November, the state’s Children and Family Services (CFS), which acts as child protection services in Nevada, launched an unfounded investigation on Muth based solely on an anonymous tip, possibly to the amusement of his detractors. After reluctantly allowing the sheriff’s deputies to inspect his home and interview his children, Muth was cleared by their inspection.

Or, perhaps not. Despite passing the inspection, the CFS has informed Muth that his file would remain open unless he subjected himself and his family to further investigations. In other words, any previous inspection would not be enough.

This is no longer about the accusation, but rather the deceptiveness of the accusation and a potential agenda for revenge under supposedly sealed files. In this case, the messenger is the message.

Megan Meier Commits Suicide After MySpace 'Hoax'

Meier, a 13-year-old girl, who suffered from depression and thought she made an online friend with a boy named Josh, committed suicide over his accusations that she was cruel person, unkind to her friends, and that the world would be better off without her.

Except Josh was not Josh, but rather the mother of another girl who wanted to gain Meier’s confidence in order to know what she was saying online about her daughter. To date, the woman who created the fake “Josh” profile has not been charged with a crime. The entire story has sparked an online maelstrom of cyber vigilante justice.

This is no longer about protective parenting, but rather the deceptiveness of hateful intent under the fake persona “Josh.” In this case, the messenger is the message.

The Future Of Anonymity

In the Meier story, Wired goes on to point to the work of Daniel Solove, professor of law at George Washington University and author of The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor and Privacy on the Internet.

The work is important, because as we see with Muth’s story, the danger of unrestrained anonymity remains a license to kill and is not confined to the Internet. It has become the new weapon of choice among con men, vengeful accusers, and hateful posers in a world where everyone is a public figure with the burden of proof landing squarely on those accused, regardless of the masked messengers.

We see it too often, accompanied by unjust justifications. The argument made for Mackey is that if anyone was duped into making decisions based on the financial message boards he posted upon, they deserve no less. The argument against Muth is he ought to have nothing to hide from the authorities. And even as the Meier story, which continues to spiral out of control, is being twisted into the idea that the victim got what she deserved. We need an adjustment.

You see, sometimes in our diligence to preserve some rights, we neglect others. And the most neglected today seems to be found within the Sixth Amendment, which includes our right to be …informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against us …

While this may seem to be an argument for complete transparency, living in glass houses is not a remedy as we’ve given up enough civil liberties in the private and public sectors. If there is any solution, the real remedy begins with shedding our apparent ignorance that the credibility of the anonymous posters, posers, and tips extends beyond a well-reasoned and authentic argument.

Simply put, allowing for anonymity preserves one freedom; whereas placing additional burden on the validity of anonymous accusations will preserve another. It’s something to think about.

Freedom was not born out of emotional polarity, but rather well balanced reason. And until those who use anonymity for selfish rather than selfless pursuits are brought to justice for bearing false witness against their neighbors, we are all at risk to become their victims. Or equally disheartening, we will lose our own right to privacy when it matters most.



Anonymous said...


This post touches me in special ways, as I have spent time locked up as a result of expressing my freedom to speak: Once for military trespass and once for being in a crowd where some were being violent. In the first instance, I violated the law; in the second instance, I did not. In both instances, I knew the risks.

With freedom (of speech) comes responsibility. Anonymity is an avoidance of that responsibility.

Note: No one has the freedom to be violent when enjoying freedom of speech.

Geoff_Livingston on 11/26/07, 1:03 PM said...

Great post, Rich. I agree that anonymity is a right, and at the same time suspect. You and I have both dealt with another anonymous character whose exploits imploded.

Reading this, I cannot help but think of Kathy Sierra, too. What a tough situation that was.

terocious on 11/26/07, 1:31 PM said...

This is fascinating stuff. Perhaps anonymity online is not a right but a privilege that one can be stripped of upon crossing a line. But where is the line and who is allowed to remove the cloak. This one has the potential to really gum up the legal works in a world where the laws are being swiftly outrun by the technology.

I have no doubt that had the mother been intimidating the 13 year old through the postal system to the same end that charges would already have been brought. Still, with the mothers address and telephone number having been made public I wonder if she will not end up a new kind of victim with nowhere to turn for protection.

Users now have super powers online. The technology has brought the comic book to life in techno-color and just as flashy as the hero/vigilante is capable of concocting.

Further in and further out…

Unknown on 11/26/07, 3:30 PM said...

I feel like no discussion about anonymity online and freedom of speech is complete without at least referencing Jim Bell's Assassination Politics.


Anonymous said...

nightbird says:

Making accusations against someone while hiding behind a curtain has never been an honorable way of dealing with a problem. The cyber world has made that much easier and enabled anyone to step behind the curtain as well. It's another of those things that are ironic, for while the net has given ordinary people the chance to be heard it has given easy ways to turn that into abuse.

Child Protective Services orperated this way long before the net. It operates on the idea of guilty before proven innocent, and to the satisfaction of someone hidden behind a desk. This was set up for specific reasons, but also creates a huge opportunity to harrass and pay back those one doesn't like. If annonomous accusations in the cyberworld can add more power to those behind the desk this makes what is already questionable into something far worse.

I've found that there is often much more honesty and real interaction behind the keyboard than in "real life" in the right circumstances. Removing the need to maintain an image that everyone expects to see gives one the freedom to express themselves as they really are. For that, the curtain is useful. Online friends may know the real you while the neighbors next door can keep thinking what they will.

But it also gives those with a problem chances to lie behind the curtain and step out and deny it. This also exists in the tactile world, but its easier when there are so many ways to be someone other than yourself for such purposes. Again, a social reality amplified by a technological means.

Cybersociety barely existed twenty years ago. The rules that have grown in society to limit the man behind the curtain aren't there yet. As the cyber world emcompassas more and more of the other one, its even more important for those who belong to both to remember that not everyone is as they seem and yet sometimes they are even more. We need to find ways to tell the difference.

Rich on 11/26/07, 6:12 PM said...

Thank you all for added insights as they deepen the conversation. Certainly, It seems anonymity protects both victims and villains, though most of our examples on the net lean toward protecting villains.

Parker, thank you for a great article; I was unfamiliar with it. And Geoff, our anonymous detractor never bothered me much, though he/she/they never took it as far with me as you and Scott beyond adding me to the list that makes up the many headed Hydra. Ha!

In fact, the late anonymous foil for public relations is already demonstrating that his cloak was no different than his character.

In more general terms, anonymity conjures two images from history for me, one honorable and one deplorable.

The Sons of Liberty, thinly disguised as Narragansett Indians and armed with small hatchets and clubs, dumping tea into the Boston Harbor.

Clansmen dressed in white sheets promoting acts of intimidation by oppressing and killing innocent African Americans and other individuals.

More and more, it seems, as Nightbird (though she is less than anonymous) points out, social media has become an attractor for the ill-intended to create unfounded and sometimes illusionary attacks against someone's credibility prior to taking action offline. And then, they use the illusion to reinforce their actual complaints, child protective services being an obvious exception. Clearly, we need reform in that public sector and more education in others.

It's something to keep in mind.

Lewis, my friend, Thomas Jefferson might have disagreed with you. But then again, I don't think Jefferson saw that our own citizens might need more protection from each other than their own government.

Although this might be worth following up on several levels, I might offer up that there is no cause to make anonymity a privilege that supercedes our basic rights, Terocious. That is a slippery slope, and one that I think is more frightening than any abuse. More appropriate might be to punish those that harm others.


Jericho247 on 11/28/07, 9:40 PM said...

This whole anonymity issue is very tricky, and one must be careful not to dive too far into murky waters.

Freedom of speech is one of the best rights ever, but with it, comes a responsibility. And, if one can't handle the responsibility, then they don't deserve the right.

And those who use violence when enjoying said right, make the rest of us peaceful people look worse than a criminal.

Kim on 11/30/07, 7:50 AM said...

Anonymity is a right. But I think the anonymous lack credibility. Anonymity is a license to say and do whatever one wishes, things a person would never say if their real identity was attached to it. The Muth case is a classic and sad example of that. Some anonymous person tried to damage this man and his family.

As Yao Man Chan said, "Love many, trust few, and do harm to none."

Rich on 11/30/07, 5:32 PM said...

Hey Kim,

I've been researching this a bit and it might be that
the anonymous lack credibility in the U.S., where there seems to exist a paradox: people are too afraid to share their less popular opinions online because they are afraid it will affect their reputation where as they don't want to be anonymous if it means a chance to score a cult following.

In China, for example, that concept is almost reversed. From what I've read, the Chinese are more likely to be honest while being anonymous and have less desire to nurture on an online brand.

The Muth case, specifically, is a sad example of this in the United States. I'm happy to add though that he is fighting back and calling for an investigation.

We need more people like that.

All my best,

Debby on 12/2/07, 8:19 PM said...

Missed this when you first wrote it. It is indeed a complicated subject matter but we do need to draw lines about what is acceptable and what isn't. The Golden Rule would definitely apply here. Cyber bullying is a big problem today and getting bigger. Thank you for your insight.


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