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What Are the Limits of Online Anonymity?
Emily Gertz, 17 Oct 07

An interesting story on the Columbia Journalism Review this week asks a question that I hadn't heard before: is the material on a newspaper's online forums fair game for reporting? Seems that late last year, about two weeks after a conservative activist named Jeff Bergosh was elected to Pensacola, Florida’s county school board, a user named “Godzilla” registered to post on the web forums of the Pensacola News Journal. And then,

Over the next year, Bergosh, cloaked as Godzilla, railed against teachers' unions ("obstacle #1" to educational reform), other board members (after voting 4-1 against Bergosh, he could hear their "spines breaking in unison"), and his fellow forum posters ("Get the F out and don't let the door hit your a@@ on the way out"). He offered opinions rarely expressed in public education: compulsory high school should be ended and truants abandoned. Once, during a teacher pay dispute, Godzilla even went so far as to as to heap praise on his puppet master: “we can count on Board member (Jeff) Bergosh".
News Journal reporter Sara Rabb saw the postings, and noticed that Godzilla and Bergosh tended to use similar phrases. According to executive editor Richard Schneider, Rabb then asked the online managing editor, an editorial employee, if there was any way to find out if Godzilla was Bergosh. A quick check of the paper’s Web registration information showed that whoever registered Godzilla had used Bergosh’s home email account.

As Rabb did more reporting, she learned that Bergosh's online persona was pretty much an open secret with some of his colleagues. And when she confronted the elected official, he initially admitted it himself...then denied it...then admitted it again, while fuming about being "outed" in an anonymous online forum.

To my mind, there's no question that once someone gets elected to public office, the standard for his or her ability to claim anonymity in online public discourse -- in any public discourse, really, it's just so much easier to go undercover online -- is raised much, much higher. But apparently many other users of the paper's forums rallied behind Bergosh's outrage.

Just as the internet can help create more transparency in government, it provides officials opportunities to spout off as they wish while ducking responsibility. (In this case, unless alert reporters notice and investigate suspicious online behavior.) In this episode, I agree with the opinion of the executive editor of the News Journal, according to the CJR: “I don’t buy the violation of privacy argument, sorry. Not for a public official."

But many think 'net anonymity is virtually a right, crucial to the 'net's promise of offering full freedom of expression, and might agree that this reporter violated privacy by looking at a user's registration data.

Thoughts?

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Comments

"But many think 'net anonymity is virtually a right, crucial to the 'net's promise of offering full freedom of expression, and might agree that this reporter violated privacy by looking at a user's registration data. "

Wouldn't that all depend on the terms of the agreement between the user and the website?

Also, the situation really hasn't changed that much from a newspaper. Can politicians not freely submit anonymous letters to the editor?


Posted by: Denis Pitcher on 17 Oct 07

Anonymity is important for people who need to be able to air opinions for which they might be unjustly punished. We shouldn’t let measures against astroturfers and sock puppets spoil it for people who need it, but we also shouldn’t go out of the way to protect people who use it for deception.


Posted by: Max Kaehn on 17 Oct 07

This guy sounds like he's much more at home in Teenage Anonymous Flameworld than in public office. As online communities have demonstrated for pretty much their entire existence, anonymity nearly always lowers the level of civil discourse.


Posted by: Dave Cutler on 17 Oct 07

If Bergosh wanted to be anonymous, he shouldn't have used his real email address. In fact, he should have read the Pensacola News Journal's terms of service and privacy policy, which as far as such things go, seem to be very much on the "less private" end of the scale. They reserve the right to share or disclose personal information, etc.

I'm strongly in favor of online privacy, but I would think that one voluntarily cedes that right when one becomes a PUBLIC official. It's ironic that so often, private citizens get spied upon and government officials are the ones who get to keep secrets. That's one power dynamic I'd like to see reversed.


Posted by: Anonymous Coward on 19 Oct 07

The public vs private issues have not changed, only the technology. Most people have an unrealistic expectation of anonymity on the net. One result is identity theft at epidemic levels. Unless precautions are taken and while net interactions are actually occuring there is less anonymity on the net than broadcast radio (net reaches farther). Even after the fact there is, as yet no legal framework, much less any well defined enforceable policies on the retention and use of "Volunteered web content". In simple terms, "If you post it, expect a diligent investigator to be able to attribute it to you.", and unless you take well informed precautions, most of what you do online is accessable to any knowledgable and diligent hacker motivated to look into your tracks.

Speaking in public is still speaking in public.


Posted by: Skylab on 19 Oct 07

The public vs private issues have not changed, only the technology. Most people have an unrealistic expectation of anonymity on the net. One result is identity theft at epidemic levels. Unless precautions are taken and while net interactions are actually occuring there is less anonymity on the net than broadcast radio (net reaches farther). Even after the fact there is, as yet no legal framework, much less any well defined enforceable policies on the retention and use of "Volunteered web content". In simple terms, "If you post it, expect a diligent investigator to be able to attribute it to you.", and unless you take well informed precautions, most of what you do online is accessable to any knowledgable and diligent hacker motivated to look into your tracks.

Speaking in public is still speaking in public.


Posted by: Skylab on 19 Oct 07



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