Anonymity on the Web

by Harry on March 17, 2007

Following up on my “ethicist” posts, a correspendent points me to this, rather unnerving, article from the Washington Post. A couple of quotes:

The woman and two others interviewed by The Washington Post learned from friends that they were the subject of derogatory chats on a widely read message board on AutoAdmit, run by a third-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania and a 23-year-old insurance agent….It contains many useful insights on schools and firms. But there are also hundreds of chats posted by anonymous users that feature derisive statements about women, gays, blacks, Asians and Jews. In scores of messages, the users disparage individuals by name or other personally identifying information. Some of the messages included false claims about sexual activity and diseases. To the targets’ dismay, the comments bubble up through the Internet into the public domain via Google’s powerful search engine.

The stories prompted the deans of Yale and Penn Law School to issue statements condemning these sorts of attacks.

In case that doesn’t worry you:

Employers, including law firms, frequently do Google searches as part of due diligence checks on prospective employees. According to a December survey by the Ponemon Institute, a privacy research organization, roughly half of U.S. hiring officials use the Internet in vetting job applications. About one-third of the searches yielded content used to deny a job, the survey said. The legal hiring market is very competitive. What could tip the balance is the appearance that a candidate is a lightning rod for controversy, said Mark Rasch, a Washington lawyer and consultant who specializes in Internet issues.

The owners of the website take the following tack:

The site’s founder, Jarret Cohen, the insurance agent, said the site merely provides a forum for free speech. “I want it to be a place where people can express themselves freely, just as if they were to go to a town square and say whatever brilliant or foolish thoughts they have,”

But of course, the analogy doesn’t work. Slandering someone, or insulting them, or making derogatory comments about their race, sex, etc, under the cloak of anonymity is very different from doing so to their face among others in a town square where you can be seen. The costs to the victim are high, but the risk to the perpetrator is, well, non-existent. Facilitating such behaviour is a quite different matter from organising a public square forum or a town hall meeting.

Now, many of our commenters are anonymous, and for most of them it is a bit of fun, and not a mask for behaviour they would not otherwise engage in. I, personally, enjoy some of the names people use, at the very least (like the obviously made up “bob mcmanus“, for example). And several commenters in the “ethicist” threads pointed out several advantages of anonymity being available. One prominent academic blogger I know of is anonymous because she/he does not want his/her students to be influenced in their academic interactions by his/her politically partisan (but smart and reasonable, in my assessment) blogging, and that seems fair enough. I’m convinced that said blogger is acting out of concern for students, rather than self. The commenters on my posts convinced me that there is a need for protocols and procedure, and that my initial posts did not give enough attention to that issue. But none of this applies to people using anonymity to say things about or to other people that they would not say in the absence of anonymity but with the protection of free speech (which all of us in the US, at least, have, by default, anonymous or not). From the point of view of the poster, commenter, blogger, or website owners who justify their own anonymity (or their policy of not moderating anonymous slander, insult, racism, sexism, etc) on broadly first amendment grounds are simply self-serving.

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03.27.07 at 3:27 pm



Matt 03.17.07 at 3:33 pm

I always hope that potential employers will google my name since long before they will find anything out about me they will have spent a lot of time reading about a professor of physics and an acomplished classical guitarist. With any luck some of their acomplishments will be attributed to me. (Or, I suppose, with bad luck my own meager acomplishments will look all the more meager!)


John Emerson 03.17.07 at 3:48 pm

A simple Google will tell you that “Bob McManus” is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. The reason he is so angry all the time is that the New York Post is such a stupid newspaper.


Seth Finkelstein 03.17.07 at 4:03 pm

“Penny Arcade” had the classic commentary:


abb1 03.17.07 at 4:03 pm

So what, it’s the equivalent of anonymous letter or phone call. Should the post office demand your social security number every time you’re handing them an envelope?


Doormat 03.17.07 at 4:44 pm

I think there’s a bit more going on here. I don’t use my real name here, for example, not because I want to say stuff I wouldn’t say to people’s faces were we having this conversation face to face, but more because it will stay online as a permanent record, and I don’t want to have to put the effort in to always writing something well, and being careful not to get angry etc. That is, I don’t want to treat every post to an internet message board as if it were a letter to my local newspaper.

For example, what I say, how much thought I put into what I say etc. will greatly differ between me being in a pub with some friends, to me having lunch with academic colleagues, to me talking to students in a class. In normal life, what I say at these different occasions is unlikely (unless it’s particularly noteworthy) to be repeated in other circumstances. So I can, say, be rude about someone to my friends in the pub, and know that said person won’t find out, and indeed, the comment is unlikely to go any further than the pub walls. This just isn’t true on the internet: a post will stay around for a long time, and as Harry points out, because of search engines, it’s likely to be accessible to almost anyone. Imagine if what you said in the pub was written up by the landlord and posted on a message board outside the entrance, accessible to anyone walking past! Imagine if you knew all your possible future employers regularly read this board!

I don’t know how to deal with this. I guess one approach might be to have Google etc. not index message boards. Then posts would only be accessible to people who know about the site and read it. This would make a message board more like a town square or pub: all be it one with a potentially large membership, and with more anonymity than those real-life version have. But it would avoid a simple internet search dredging up either untrue claims about you, or true things about you which in the normal course of life would have been lost to history.

Which is to say, I’m not sure it’s the anonymity of the internet which is the problem. It’s that anonymity, coupled with a huge potential audience, coupled with increasingly powerful search tools leads to a sort of emergent problem.


Tim Bailey 03.17.07 at 5:04 pm

…it’s the equivalent of anonymous letter or phone call…

An anonymous letter or phone call will generally be made to a specific recipient to convey some negative comment or information. The recipients of anonymous communications of this kind will know that the senders intended them specifically as an audience. Recipients also know that people rarely send anonymous letters or phone calls about themselves to prospective employers. Less thoughtful employers will take these postings as having a greater likelihood of being true simply because they weren’t aimed at them specifically; they will view it more as overhearing a conversation in a public place.

Clearly any thoughtful and fair person would not attach much value to anonymous claims of any kind, without further corroboration, but people are often neither thoughtful nor fair. I personally view most claims by anonymous posters as having nothing more than entertainment value. I certainly wouldn’t make any important decisions based on an anonymous post alone.

In the legal hiring game I understand that, because there are generally far more applicants than positions, firms look for any reason to discard resumes. Bad things written about them on the Internet are as good as anything else if you really can’t decide between two people.


abb1 03.17.07 at 5:26 pm

Clearly any thoughtful and fair person would not attach much value to anonymous claims of any kind, without further corroboration, but people are often neither thoughtful nor fair.

This is the heart of the matter, isn’t it.

Anonymous accusations and insinuations is a fact of life, with message boards or without. I think a thoughtful and fair person might attach some value to anonymous claims, but he/she will certainly investigate the claims before acting on them.

And those who are in charge while neither thoughtful nor fair – there’s nothing you can do about it.


Randolph Fritz 03.17.07 at 6:20 pm

“using anonymity to say things about or to other people that they would not say in the absence of anonymity”

It’s worth remembering that people who want to do this can also be people with real fear of reprisals; abuse victims, whistleblowers, and so on. Anonymity has genuine value, though it is also a roblem.


harry b 03.17.07 at 6:45 pm

#8 — yes, I realise that, and those are the kinds of reason that people persuaded me that anonymity has value (as I said earlier in my post). I couldn’t find the exact right words to describe the principle (still can’t, but I’ll work on it). But, clearly, the people we are talking about are not in those camps.


lindsey 03.17.07 at 7:00 pm

Reading that article was a bit of a wake up. I suppose stuff like that has been happening for quite some time, but I have yet to be affected by it. While I still think that people should be held responsible in some degree for what they write, I can’t believe employers (and maybe even admission boards) would so carelessly use what was posted about someone. While slander and gossip isn’t a new phenomenon stemming from the advent of the internet, it’s worth recognizing that the new increase of possible harm that is only made possible by the internet should challenge our current laws (and procedures) about such matters. Of course I don’t have a good suggestion for what this change would look like, but I still believe it needs to happen. On another note, I am pulling down my facebook account after I graduate (and before I go to law school in the fall…).


Seth Finkelstein 03.17.07 at 7:01 pm

Sigh. This sort discussion should have a header:


1) Anonymity can be a social benefit – dissidents, whistle-blowers, people fighting power in general

2) Anonymity can be a social harm – smear-artists, gossips, trolls in general.

3) There is no way to remove the harm of #2 entirely without removing the benefit of #1 entirely.

4) People harmed by #2 find little comfort in the benefit of #1, and there’s a lot more by trolls in the world than dissidents.

5) Fair-minded employers won’t act on anonymous troll comments.

6) Employees sometimes need jobs with employers who aren’t fair-minded.

Thank you.


harry b 03.17.07 at 7:14 pm

Following up on lindsey’s comment (and just musing, that’s all) I wonder whether the phenomenon is actually, like some others, a replication of things that went on before labour markets became so dispersed. Think of yourself in a medium sized town in 1910, with no expectation of leaving, so needing to get a job, or whatever, within the town. Your reputation was probably pretty public, and pretty unshakeable. Geographical mobility opened up a certain ability to leave one’s reputation behind, at least for the class of people who used geographical mobility. And now, suddenly, everything follows you wherever you go, whether true or false, relevant or irrelevant. I imagine, though, that the scale of the internet makes it relatively easy really to smear someone quite badly, without much effort.


fred lapides 03.17.07 at 7:17 pm

I have for some time had a website (blog) that has many images that are soft pron–topless girls. A friend often went to my site. After a time, I would from time to time post a girl and say that it was for my friend, naming him. Alas, he opened a website for his bakery business and some people, forgetting his website name, googled him by his name and then complained that they were taken to a
“porn site.” I had to have a friend with some tech savy to get his name off my archives. Finally the way this became no longer a problem:his business went bankrupt. Thus, I have learned never to use a full name on a site that might be googled to the disadvantage of someone whose name is used, or, conversely, to put up the full name of someone I want to get even with! My site? I won’t give the name but then you can google my name and get it. And so it goes


John Emerson 03.17.07 at 7:20 pm

Anonymous letters (“poison pen letters”) have always been regarded as dubious — potentially slanderous or threatening — and many publications won’t print them if they attack individuals unless they point to verifiable facts. This is a different thing than pseudonymous publication, where the publisher knows the author and stands behind him.

What this all makes me think of, though, is how paranoid and bullying employers are, and how they have the whip hand. Anyone who wants a career these days has to be suffocatingly discreet.


SamChevre 03.17.07 at 7:35 pm

Well, I have some somewhat relevant experience; my profession has a fairly active bulletin board community (, often called “the AO”.

Most people on the AO are pseudonymous, but most of them are out to their colleagues. (NO one who knows me IRL and online doesn’t know who I am.) Thus, people’s reputations in the real world are affected by their behaviour online. It would be quite common, if you were considering hiring someone, to see what they are like on the AO.

And yes, some people are criticized online by their real name, even though the commenters are anonymous. In most cases they are public figures (e.g. Bob Hunter), but I suppose not always.


Keith M Ellis 03.17.07 at 7:43 pm

I’ve been outspoken against anonymity for social accountability reasons for, well, the entire 25 years I’ve been online. Through that time, I’ve almost always used my real name or a variant with my real name available. I also do not moderate what I write out of a concern that it might someday be read by other than the immediate audience.

In my opinion, the need for accountability is very high and, anyway, it will become more and more difficult to hide one’s identity.

The solution to these problems is not technological or legal. The solution is cultural. I think we need to, and will, develop new respect for privacy mores appropriate to a society where technology makes invasions of privacy very easy. Just because you can know something about someone doesn’t mean that you should know something about someone. We already accept this in a great number of ways. It’s only that the web is so new that these social mechanisms haven’t yet been adapted to it. But they will by necessity.

I’ve not yet modified my own behavior to completely accord with what I write above. I still Google people even though I’m very close to embracing the idea that Googling people shouldn’t be done unless one has a good reason. That may be impractical, but the commonsensical modification of this would be to use discretion in what results one follows. Some things you can probably tell you shouldn’t be reading.


bob mcmanus 03.17.07 at 7:55 pm

omigod, I am ruined.

Hey, everybody maybe I’m this guy. And maybe I will excommunicate you if you go looking. Or even lightning.

Messing with a Bishop on St Paddy’s Day, I am in big trouble.


John Emerson 03.17.07 at 8:50 pm

Bob, you’ve been living a lie. I outed you for your own good. You can also expect a policemen at your door. Tough love R me.


dearieme 03.17.07 at 9:16 pm

My pseudonym is really easy to penetrate but I don’t know why anyone would bother since he would probably find it impossible to tell which of my comments are my own and which are impostures from my computer-crafty students. The buggers even recount some of my favourite anecdotes, apparently as punishment for my repeating them too often. Don’t we?


Tom T. 03.17.07 at 9:33 pm

Harry, the last sentence in your post is missing a word somewhere; as it is, it lacks a subject.


Lester Hunt 03.17.07 at 9:49 pm

I admit that some people have suggested some valid reasons for commenting anonymously here, but still it seems to me that it is way overdone in the blogoshere. The legitimate reasons don’t seem to explain why it is so prevalent. I recently blogged about a controversy here at my university about racially tinged comments a law professor had made in class — and everyone who commented did so anonymously. Later one of them told me the reason: according to him, it was because all of them were law students and afraid of the consequences of speaking freely. Apparently, this was true of students who spoke on either side of the issue! I found this rather disturbing.


harry b 03.17.07 at 10:23 pm

tom t — damn, I should have posted anonymously. Will fix.


Rich B. 03.17.07 at 11:07 pm

For the record, I don’t use my real name because when I did, I was startled to eventually learn that people assumed I was a more famous individual in England who had the same name, but whom I (being a Yank), had never heard of. Anyway, I assumed at the time that they would think my real name was a pseudonym, because it is also the name a relatively well-known fictional character (who, unlike the British professor, I had heard of).

Better to be anonymous than to risk accidentally impersonating others.


vivian 03.17.07 at 11:49 pm

Harry, it is like being in a small-ish town a hundred years ago – especially in that it is worse if you’re ascriptively vulnerable. Not just career slander – it’s also threats, incitement to stalking, see (copy and paste)

None of this is driven by formal anonymity – it’s the same clubbiness that acquits lynchings. We’ll see if law firms take these sites as information about the cravenness of the posters or the subjects.


vivian 03.18.07 at 12:10 am

Also, your commenters don’t post anonymously, we post pseudonymously. Using one name over time means we all know what to expect of ‘vivian’ or ‘dearieme’ or ‘rich b’ or ‘abb1’. We get a community reputation, but hope to keep retaliation from spreading to real life and inboxes. Real one-timers are different.


harry b 03.18.07 at 12:20 am

#24 — yes, I see. That’s what I like about it. By the way, I’m planning a regular recipe post at your suggestion!

Thanks for the link in #23. I think it should work as a link here, and recommend everyone read it.


Larry Summers 03.18.07 at 12:34 am

“One prominent academic blogger I know of is anonymous because she/he does not want his/her students to be influenced in their academic interactions by his/her politically partisan (but smart and reasonable, in my assessment) blogging, and that seems fair enough.”

Thanks, Harry, but I’ve decided to come clean. It’s time, I think. I no longer have anything to fear.


Tim Bailey 03.18.07 at 12:41 am

# 11. Sigh. This sort discussion should have a header:


Who’s we? Many people who are new to the Internet may not have thought of these points yet. One of the frustrating things about blogs, bulletin boards &c is that phenomenon of the endless initiation: there are always new people arriving and so the basics are forever being reiterated.

Personally, I have moved from anonymity to my real name over the time (online ten years) I’ve posted to bulletin boards and blogs. I actually think of it as a brake on my output, and important to remind myself that actions have consequences. I delete more comments than I post, because I am less concerned with sharing my half-formed reactions than my considered thoughts.

# 23. None of this is driven by formal anonymity – it’s the same clubbiness that acquits lynchings.

I think you might be underestimating the craven, paranoid nature of many law students. I know at my law school (consistently in the top 3 in Canada; recruits regularly to the SCC, Manhattan firms, &c) people groomed their brand personae more carefully and jealously than movie stars and national leaders. Hilariously, the firms with the highest standards are most often also the ones that defend and enable some of the worst agents in society; Ceaser’s wife and all that.

I would be very, very surprised if the guys who posted that stuff at AutoAdmit would have done so under their own names. Unless, of course, they didn’t care about being hired anywhere. I’d bet that the flak the whole episode drew has them shitting bricks for fear that their true identites might come out. I see this more of a case of people who are normally lying about their true nature (or at least obfuscating it) finding a place to let it run free, due to anonymity. I’ve known many law students who were keeping all sorts of ugliness in check, and shared it only within a private circle of the like-minded.


jim 03.18.07 at 1:01 am

I think too much is being made of “anonymity”. Libel laws still apply. The people making the alleged defamatory statements (with reckless disregard for the truth), statements which can be demonstrated to have caused actual damage, are not, after all, truly anonymous. The board operators know who they are and can be made to provide that knowledge to a court.

Whether the possibility of redress is worth the effort is, of course, up to those alleged to have been defamed. But I don’t think we need to start worrying about the general case, whether anonymity per se is good or bad, based on these specifics.


Tim Bailey 03.18.07 at 1:26 am

…statements which can be demonstrated to have caused actual damage…

…which is pretty much impossible when you have no direct evidence of it. How could the women in the case of the AutoAdmit scandal prove that firms had disqualified them on that basis? Affidavits from the lawyers in charge of hiring? Certainly the records of the board operators can be subpeonaed, but it’s fairly easy to create a bogus identity. It’s most likely that the only useful information would be the originating IP addresses, and in that case everyone already knows that the anonymous posters were law students.

In short, defamation law provides these women with no reasonable recourse. Certainly they could have a show trial, but it would probably fail for want of evidence.

However, in the event that we decided as a society to prohibit anonymous posting to the Internet, there is no way we could enforce that prohibition without adopting some sort of secure and unique personal identity key. Maybe in twenty years…


dryki 03.18.07 at 2:48 am

There is a confusion over “anonymous”. Someone pointed out it’s under pseudonyms that we post. Yes; it’s a name for a role, a handle. From WordNet:

pseudonym, n : a fictitious name used when the person performs a particular social role

I run an ISP and have since 1994. There is no place where surveillance is easier than online. Rather than be concerned about anonymity; my concern is that there is none and the damage that does to both the public and private spaces. I’m also one of the complainants on the NSA/Verizon complaint here in Maine. The digital world is not a public space; everything you do gets owned by someone else.

There are all sorts of things I will not write online or speak on the phone that I can discuss in a restaurant or on the street. The recording changes the social context and behavior. The words public, private and anonymous don’t work well; my speech is more private and anonymous in a public space. Go figure.


anon 03.18.07 at 3:21 am

Re: 28: that’s true, but only if (a) participants fail to mask their IP addresses AND (b) the operators of the site wish to preserve the records necessary to comply with such orders from a court. Thus, a great deal here depends on the actions of whoever owns the forum.

An interesting side note in the Autoadmit case is that many of the victims’ grievances are not against the individual posters but against the site itself — for not taking down defamatory threads when asked, but instead posting victims’ emailed requests on the web, resulting in further humiliation and harassment; and also for carefully protecting anonymous posters’ identity (e.g. by removing users’ posts ‘outing’ other anonymous users) while allowing users to post victims’ real names, photos, locations, and contact information with impunity.

If it is confusing why site administrators would be motivated to act in this way, think about how it is that a site like this one attracts its ‘community’ of misogynistic, status-conscious pre-law and law student males in the first place. Many of the attacks grow out of status/inferiority issues, with mostly white men who may have been rejected by top law schools grousing about the undeservingness of women and minorities who DID get in, which then shades over into general harassment of these women and minorities. Hence the focus on Yale. The particular, distinctive form of harassment common on this board grows out of the anxious motivations that draw together a significant subset of this board’s community in the first place, and probably also the site’s administrators.

I recognize the irony of posting this note anonymously, but you can dig deeper into this controversy on many public blogs (if you have the stomach for it) and find out more. Start with Brian Leiter’s posts about autoadmit.


Dan Simon 03.18.07 at 6:07 am

I think way, way too much is being made here of the issue of anonymity. I strongly suspect, for instance, that a large fraction of the slanderers who post anonymously to various Internet fora are too obscure and asset-poor to be worth suing, and too antisocial to care about their reputations in either the real or electronic worlds. Hence, they’d be perfectly happy to attach their own names to their slanders if that were the only option available. And anyone who attaches credibility to their anonymous rantings today obviously wouldn’t be bothered to investigate the same ranters’ bona fides if they were non-anonymous, either.

The really frightening issue here, I believe, is the incredible power of Web search. Web searchers who find anonymous slanders about job applicants and then take them at face value are merely misguided and naive–and look at the damage they can do. Now, imagine what someone with genuinely malicious intent could do, given a browser and a search engine…

As I like to point out, the current generation of privacy laws originated in the sixties, when corporations began amassing computerized customer databases, and the possibility of abusing this collected information arose. Today, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has access to a database infinitely richer and easier to exploit than any corporation fifty years ago could have dreamed of. And there’s no way the government or anyone else can, should or would impose on all individuals the kinds of data-handling restrictions that were placed on large organizations, back when they were the only ones capable of collecting this kind of data. I don’t have an answer to this problem, but I believe that it’ll get much worse before it gets better–if it ever does.


aaron_m 03.18.07 at 10:52 am

I agree with Harry’s analysis and Seth’s 1-4 (from #11) is a clear formulation of the problem.

What is interesting is the normative conclusion that there is something ethically problematic about not moderating the comments of a blog/forum, and that it actually becomes more morally blameworthy the more widely read the blog is or the more likely it is that anonymous comments will unfairly harm someone. The upshot is that there can be a strong normative case for limiting freedom of speech when the discourse is advanced in a certain way while there is a strong case against limits when the discourse is advanced in another way. Maybe this thought also leads one to accept that freedom of speech is of instrumental value (as Mill most often argued) and not of intrinsic value (as the story goes in liberal democratic countries). Well actually I do not have the time to actually think about these issues, thus I choose to remain anonymous.


Joshua W. Burton 03.18.07 at 2:59 pm

South American etiquette for much of the 20c provided for a two-tier system: subtle cues in a dinner invitation made it clear to all whether this was an event for bringing wives, or for bringing mistresses. I believe there was a day-of-week convention for formal parties, as well. The result was that both sorts of couples could enjoy a rich and fulfilling social life with minimal friction; the inevitable rare meetings were treated as social nonevents. Naturally, in cases of direct confrontation, it was the mistress who went to powder her nose, but casual meetings were smiled through gracioiusly and then promptly forgotten by everyone as a matter of urbane convention.

I think a similar convention would serve admirably in online venues where actual people and anonymoids interact casually. So long as we know where we stand, social equality is a pleasant fiction well worth maintaining.

And after all, those who wear the mask are surely the intellectual equals of those who are investing durable reputation capital. It’s only in those unpleasant direct personal confrontations (affairs of honor, so to speak) that it matters whether one is wasting time jousting with someone who casts no shadow.


Jim Smith 03.18.07 at 3:10 pm

I think we’re going to learn in the long run that the internet will chiefly deny us privacy just at those moments when we need it most.

On the other hand, I now truly envy those with names like John Smith or Mary Jones. Those with the most common identifying tags will be the most invisible to surveillance schemes like Google, internet archives, the memory hole, etc.


Lester Hunt 03.18.07 at 3:17 pm

32 said: “I think way, way too much is being made here of the issue of anonymity. I strongly suspect, for instance, that a large fraction of the slanderers who post anonymously … are … too antisocial to care about their reputations in either the real or electronic worlds.”

This seems implausible to me. If someone does not care about their own reputation, they aren’t so likely to feel that they are seriously hurting their enemies when they trash theirs. An unmoderated forum that allows anonymous posting is open to the problem of being used for defamatory purposes. (Of course it is also true that, until it is so used, there is nothing unethical about it. What is unethical is failure to remedy the situation when it is.)


stuart 03.18.07 at 5:03 pm

Even if I bothered to put in my full name I would still be pseudonymous anyway (if google is to be believed, I have a wife called Michaelia and a child called Morgan. Or maybe I am a Freemason in the US. Or I have an account on Flickr with no photos. Or I wrote a book called ‘Discrete frequency sound generation in axial flow turbomachines’. With just my forename and surname I could even be a former member of ‘Heaven and Earth’ among many other things.

All news to me, and I guess this will become true for more and more people as more go on line, so even less common names become less easy to clearly identify, unless you are the most well known person of that name.

Of course when you can narrow things down it can be easier to identify people, in the example given by only searching on law related boards and sites you are more likely to get items relating to the target of the search, and any personally identifying information can rapidly lead to identification of the person being discussed to a reasonable degree of accuracy accidentally, or in this case the targets of the attacks are explicitly trying to do so.

Not exactly my area of expertise, but I get the impression from talking to people who have run message boards, that the people running this particular board are in very dodgy legal territory – by not removing messages promptly when they are complained against, they can become liable for damages from those messages in the same way as the originators can be (in the same way both someone originating a slander, and a newspaper reporting/publishing it can both potentially be liable). Of course the main defense in these cases is most people wont be bothered to chase it up, although with legal students maybe they are running somewhat more of a risk than is normally the case.


Dan Simon 03.18.07 at 5:05 pm

This seems implausible to me. If someone does not care about their own reputation, they aren’t so likely to feel that they are seriously hurting their enemies when they trash theirs.

Precisely. If you consider reputations worthless, then destroying someone else’s is a casual lark rather than an act of ruthless cruelty. Conversely, those with substantial reputations to uphold are far less likely to recklessly damage someone else’s–even under cover of anonymity.


John Emerson 03.18.07 at 5:05 pm

I think that the only actual issue here is anonymous libel/slander on the internet. It’s not really a free speech issue, or an anonymity issue.

There may even be a question of whether internet communication is print or speech, libel or slander. it’s really more like chat than like publication in most cases, but it survives like publication.


Lester Hunt 03.18.07 at 6:09 pm

#34 said “If you consider reputations worthless, then destroying someone else’s is a casual lark rather than an act of ruthless cruelty.”

This also seems implausible to me. This would mean that these pages we are talking about are actually not malicious at all. Most of us have been assuming that they are in fact very nasty, not just innocently and amorally prankish.


stuart 03.18.07 at 6:23 pm

I would say anything on the internet has to be assumed to be permanent – even if in many cases it will disappear, there is little guarantee of it. I dont think there is any issue of anonymity relating to this either, the original author may be identifiable or not, even if they arent the people retaining the potentially libelous material can always be identified if necessary, and are the first point of contact for removing or pursuing legal options anyway.

The only marginal cases I can see is where material has been removed from the website, but is still located via the google cache or similar resources – this is only temporary of course, and they have been known to remove material from the cache on request in a few cases – effectively they can be treated as another publisher of the same material and pursued separately, in which case they are likely to remove it without too much fuss, as they have little to gain trying to keep questionable material cached once it has been removed from the original site.

Another potential problem is jurisdiction, and is something I consider likely to be one of the big issues in the coming years, I can see a potential push from some areas for an agency like the UN to develop a unified set of laws and judiciary for the internet (even if I also see its unlikely to come about due to the politics), otherwise unscrupulous website creators will be able to dodge many laws just by siting their servers in some country that sees an advantage in allowing lax laws in this area to get the extra business/tax; Nigeria would seem like a potential front runner at this time, but this could easily change, and possibly different types of abuse might find different homes – you might start phishing businesses in Nigeria, spam in Russia, copyright abuse in China, etc., based on which country has the best legal environment to protect your particular speciality.


roy belmont 03.18.07 at 7:20 pm

The real issue is cowardice, not anonymity – or anonymity-on-the-internet. Cowardice is such an acceptable aspect of character now that it’s used as a justification for otherwise grave dubious acts. People do things because they were “in danger”, while at the same time paying lip service to those who risk themselves in dangerous situations. In 2003 an American soldier addressed this in a blindly recursive way:
“I think they’re cowards,” Boggs said of the parents or Fedayeen paramilitaries who send out children to the battlefield.

“I think they thought we wouldn’t shoot kids. But we showed them we don’t care. We are going to do what we have to do to stay alive and keep ourselves safe.”
Doing what we have to do. As opposed to doing what honor says needs to be done, i.e. when a fireman enters a building that may collapse or explode etc.
This confusion about bravery and risk and selfishness is culture-wide, and nowhere more virulent than in anonymous flame wars and the physical security of the internet’s fora.
People did these things with telephones and anonymous tips before there were home computers, and they surely did them when all they had to hand were surreptitious notes and whispers. The flaw is in the man not the media – it’s cowardice that harms us here, not anonymity.


Joshua W. Burton 03.18.07 at 9:40 pm

Roy Belmont writes:

– it’s cowardice that harms us here, not anonymity.

…which is just the point of drawing a class line. People with (durable, uniquely searchable) names cannot be cowardly in this fashion: thanks to search, they necessarily stand behind their words forever. And “cowardice” is not even a category that can be applied to the others; they are simply transparent wraiths with regard to any matter of honor. Servants will talk belowstairs, of course, but they are powerless to accuse (save in open court, where all are equal under the law’s protection, and even anonymous whistleblowers can give factual testimony).

The women who were wronged in this case would have been protected, if they had been able to rely on a broad and inflexible polite convention that anonymous words bear only factual or analytical, never moral or social, weight. “Well, yes, one hears all sorts of things from under that rock. Do you find it amusing? I’m afraid I don’t.” The vulgarian is abashed, someone coughs nervously, and the committee moves on to the candidate’s letters of recommendation.


Anonymous 03.18.07 at 11:45 pm

Why not fight fire with fire? Make up anonymous comments complaining that such and such male student is a rapist and sexual harasser. Then see how long the authorities continue to think there’s nothing they can do.


dave heasman 03.18.07 at 11:53 pm

Off topic, but Harry – “Think of yourself in a medium sized town in 1910, with no expectation of leaving, so needing to get a job, or whatever, within the town. Your reputation was probably pretty public, and pretty unshakeable. Geographical mobility opened up a certain ability to leave one’s reputation behind, at least for the class of people who used geographical mobility”

This was something my father and many of his generation had to deal with as an electrician moving locations. He and his fellows solved it by joining the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos, a sort of friendly society that also saddled members with obligations not to do crap work or rip people off, and in return the members would look out for you in the workplace, get you gigs etc. For a while between the 20s and 60s I think it was pretty effective.


Tracy W 03.19.07 at 3:51 am

These recent posts give me the impression that Joshua Burton has the most workable solution – a convention that anonymous accusations don’t count for anything – unless you’re a police officer or otherwise in a situation to start a proper investigation.

So we need to start scoffing whenever anyone mentions dodgy, anonymous information obtained via Google (though a person’s homepage of course may be very relevant).


chud 03.19.07 at 3:57 am

Right or wrong. Fair or unfair. Angry or not. Objective or not. Constructively critical or not. Anonymity has a place in both real and virtual society for all the above-referenced whistleblowing/political dissident, etc. reasons.
That said, I think that in today’s job market, you really can’t be too careful to post anything under your real name because you never know exactly how a potential employer will react when they run their inevitable web search.

What you may consider innocuous and beneficial may translate into an obnoxious liability. Employers, I have found, really don’t want employees who can think for themselves or have sufficient chutzpah to participate in anything that affects change either politically, socially or otherwise.

The bottom line is that most of them want compliant drones just smart enough to do XYZ task and that’s it. You check your 1st Amendment right at the door along with all your other rights employers have been steadily usurping /running roughshod over the years (drug screening, credit checking, etc.) Using your real name to post anything online is career suicide, IMO.


Stuart 03.19.07 at 12:12 pm

One thing I wonder is whether this will lead to the reverse happening soon – if employers start googling their employees as a standard practise, will potential employees start deliberately ensuring their name appears on high traffic sites making statements that act to support their applications that they try to ensure appear high up in google searches. Who knows ‘Google Grooming’ might become as important as a well written CV in the next decade.


paul 03.19.07 at 1:53 pm

I’m with at least some of the people who locate a big part of the problem with the readers rather than the writers of anonymous smear sites. It would be interesting, for example, if the presence of a site such as AutoAdmit were considered prima facie evidence sufficient for discovery of a firm’s hiring practices.


Pete 03.19.07 at 4:05 pm

The eventual fix for this is probably employment law that prevents this, just as it prevents discrimination on gender or race.


joeo 03.19.07 at 7:24 pm

The autoadmit thing is a real problem. Law firms do google applicants. One of the things law schools don’t want to see are any signs of potential problems. They also aren’t going to spend much time investigating who is the cause of the web postings.

The real solution is to have autoadmit pull the postings at the request of the person being defamed. Autoadmit is being a real baby about this.


pdf23ds 03.19.07 at 7:43 pm

*I* think the central issue here (what’s this, the fifth one suggested?) is that internet search is adding some more characteristics to those that employers already use to (perhaps unfairly) discriminate against employees. Besides race and sex and sexual orientation, we already have plenty of others that are harder to describe, involving things like accent and posture and attractiveness. Now with the internet, we have things like political orientation and fame and other sorts of opinions and such. Would employers really want to discriminate against someone who writes really well and is persuasive and opinionated, for being too dangerous and not sheeplike?

I don’t think this is a big problem. Yes, it will make it harder for some kinds of people to get a job. But then, I think that the kinds of jobs people get will start to change too. And I do think that employers will eventually learn to better understand the search results. And that includes being able to put teacup tempests into the proper perspective.


Roy Belmont 03.19.07 at 11:58 pm

The evolution of defense strategies proceeds apace on top of the almost irrefutable justification for each new iteration that hey it works. Thus the big debate about torture isn’t its craven sadism, it’s that it’s ineffective, so why bother.
“People with (durable, uniquely searchable) names cannot be cowardly in this fashion” almost presumes a limit to the discussion per its local display, the particular cowardices involved in this particular manifestation at this particular time.
That cowardice has crept into, insinuated itself into, the center of the human condition, and made nobility a fairy-tale of inconvenience and absurdity becomes outside the topic, so the heck with it.
Maybe these are symptoms of some rather larger pathology?
Maybe pathologies that succeed well enough will become species in their own rights? Maybe that’s what that is? Backwash from the fatal timidity of the mass, unled by anything or anyone more scrupulous than their own appetites and those who would use the great reservoir of blind power their collected appetites become.

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