Monday, May 14, 2007

Anonymity and the Internet

The Internet is the ultimate liberterian experiment: few rules and plenty of freedom, just the fact that the participants have a vested interest in its success preventing a decent into total chaos. As a Chappell Show sketch points out, if the Internet were a real place, it wouldn’t really be the kind of place you would want to visit. But he leaves out one very important factor: everyone is wearing Halloween costumes. Some people are dressed as themselves, but everyone is wearing a mask. There is simply no way to be sure who is who. After all, can you really be sure that someone posting under a real-enough-sounding name is actually named “John Smith”?

Tom Grubisich addresses the issue of Internet anonymity in today’s Washington Post. However, he completely neglects something very important that gets drilled into our heads regarding conversing on the Internet: never give out your personal information. And these days, even giving out your name can give people access to some very personal information. The anonymity goes both ways: I may not be able to find the Internet bully, but the bully can’t find me, either.

Insisting that the people who write on bulletin boards or even blogs be open about their identity does nothing to protect them from the people who anonymously read their posts. As Dahlia Lithwick discusses here, having your personal information plastered on the Internet (especially when accompanied by threats) is a very real and menacing problem (and, no, female bloggers aren’t the only targets). Those who are open about their identities can more easily be victimized by those who make no such efforts towards open and civil discourse. Reporters who publish their names have long received negative and even threatening reactions to their writings, but they have their publishers and editors behind them. They can report abusing and threatening e-mails and comments to their boss. If some idiot starts flaming me in the comments or e-mails me directly, I have no such luxury.

Though I generally try to be careful on my blog, the average internet stalker obsessively reading through it could figure out my first name, my birth date, my gender, what area I live in, where I work (though not the company I work for), where I went to college, the first names of several of my friends, the names of my cats, and probably a few more things that, if I put them all into one post, I wouldn’t publish it. You won’t find my address, my phone number, or anything that specific. But if you had my name, they would be a lot easier to get.

My only defense is my hit counter which tells me how people reached my blog, what time they visited, where they were when they visited, what service provider they used, how many pages they viewed, what OS and browser they used, and various other random tidbits that I bet you didn’t know the websites you visit were collecting from you. Given that I only get about 19 hits a day and my regular readers are well distributed, I can generally tell exactly who read my blog. If someone discovered this blog and decided to read through the whole thing (note to internet stalkers: that’s 812 posts over a 3 year period, so settle in) to uncover all of the information I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I would notice.

There are ways to defend against drive-by flamers and Internet bullies. There are plenty of forums and even blogs that require registration to post comments. This discourages drive-by posts of the juvenile variety and gives a name (even if it’s a fake one) to repeat troublemakers. Some forums allow users to block other users, so if another poster starts flinging insults, you can just ignore them. Some bloggers and forums moderate their comments, which can prevent flame wars from getting out of hand. This can lead to posters whose messages are deleted to complain about censorship and to scream about the first amendment and whatnot, to which I say: my house, my rules. If you insult me, I have every right to kick you off my property. Go start your own forum/blog if you want. It’s a free Internet.

Having forums and blogs with required registration and rules of conduct, even if the rules are minimal, go a long way toward making online conversations more civil. It’s not necessary to take people’s online identities and match them up with their social security numbers. That, too, has the potential for abuse. Registered pseudonyms still give posters an identity, just one without a birth certificate. Besides, without pseudonyms, the U.S. wouldn’t be the country it is today. They can’t be all bad.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you had someone flame you in the comments or by email? You don't really write provocative posts. But some people are losers.
-Jason

5/15/2007 7:51 AM  
Blogger SpakKadi said...

Not really. I think one of my posts on evolution may have attracted some negative comments. But there are a few posts I've written whose subject matter did attract quite a bit of "heated debate" on the blogosphere, though it wasn't centered here (there are advantages to having a small readership). I have gotten into arguments online, but nothing even approaching the flame wars that I have witnessed others get into. But you never know.

5/15/2007 8:55 AM  
Blogger Diana said...

I know where you live. I know what your name is. Are you afraid yet?

5/15/2007 5:37 PM  
Anonymous John Smith said...

I know where she works.

5/15/2007 7:36 PM  
Blogger SpakKadi said...

Oh, no! They're coming for me!

5/15/2007 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Walt said...

Some folks I know like to say you can split people into three catagories: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. All up to what you choose to be.

5/19/2007 9:03 AM  
Anonymous walt said...

...given what these people do for a living, I should add: Being a sheepdog does not preclude one from being positively wolf-ish towards those who threaten one's sheep.

5/19/2007 9:06 AM  

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