Monday, June 20, 2011

Privacy versus Anonymity

The Supreme Court is being asked to weigh in on the rights of individuals to be anonymous on the internet - namely when posting critical views. Some companies want the right to identify detractors, and, in many ways defend themselves against libelous but anonymous comments. Critics of the companies claim that identifying the names is an infringement on freedom of speech. I'm not so sure I agree.

The anonymous quality of the internet has always bothered me for a variety of reasons. Everything I post on the internet - every comment I make anywhere in society - has my name and face attached to it. For that reason, I am accountable for what I say. And I never put anything in print that I am embarrassed or reluctant to claim. And I view with suspicion anyone who posts anonymously - or, with ridiculous pseudonyms. I have often considered refusing to post anonymous comments on my blog because I have little respect for someone who will criticize or challenge my public posts, yet refuses to put a name to the comments. It always seems a little cowardly and childish. Of course, I acknowledge the time-honored tradition of anonymous news sources, especially as whistle blowers. But they are not what I am talking about - we can't extend whistle blower, anonymous source protection to everyone who wants to write a negative review of a product on Amazon. Can we? Should we?

One of the biggest mistakes I think Americans make regarding privacy issues is to believe they have a right to be invisible, or a right to not be seen. This weighs heavily in public places like schools, airports, and streets. No one is guaranteed invisibility if they are going to walk down a public street or enter a public building. The right to privacy does not endow invisibility. And, that should probably extend to anonymity. Author Michael Lewis wrote about this years ago in his book Next: The Future Just Happened. In analyzing the unintended results of the rise of the anonymity, he chronicled stories of young people who broke down the walls of the legal profession and Wall Street by using the anonymity of the internet. For example, Jonathon Lebed was the youngest person ever indicted for internet stock fraud after he bought penny stocks and then posted anonymous hype of financial message boards. Lewis explains that his "hype" was believable only because no one knew the financial advice was coming from a teenager with no credentials. Anonymity allowed Lebed to crash the gates of financial advising - and enabled him to generate nearly $900,000 in about fifteen months. Whether that was a positive impact on society, I don't know.

Ultimately, accountability is important. This is especially true in economic situations. Trust is integral to the integrity of a system. And, outside the situation of whistle blowers, anonymity is not a positive quality for American society.


Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

*shrug* The pseudonym is also a long-standing tradition. For that matter, Franklin invented entire personalities for the purpose of swaying readers and getting them to think differently about social issues.

I'm sure in a criminal case, the true identity of people who are libellous or inciting to riot and that sort of thing can be identified without too much trouble.

But as for me personally, I use a pseudonym at the request of my husband because he values his privacy very highly. I share my real name and even my address with most people who email and ask.

Off-topic a bit perhaps, but I don't wonder if people who write bad things about a given company aren't actually hired by the competition more often than we might imagine.

mmazenko said...

You know ... I wasn't even thinking of you when I mentioned the pseudonym idea. Yours are actually amusing and, of course, I do know you and appreciate your comments. But, I have had some frustrating experiences with the anonymous contributors at times. I sympathize with the reasons for desiring anonymity - though I think it creates more problems than it provides in benefits. Openness in society is not a bad thing.

Dennis Fermoyle said...

Michael, I think you continue to show great common sense. (Of course that might be because I agree with you so much.) I read your last two posts, and I'm with you on both of them. If Happy Elf Mom wants to use a pseudonym for non-offensive writing, no one should have problem with that. But there are people who write anonymously and get downright nasty, and that seems gutless. Maybe there's good reasons for some people remaining anonymous, but I can't think of what they are.

On your SS post, the state of our politics depresses me. We have an incredible debt that gets more incredible every day, and the Republicans and Tea Party types don't want to consider increasing taxes on ANYONE. If a Democrat proposes that, they will make political hay out of it. And the Democrats don't want to touch Social Security or Medicare, and if anyone mentions that as a possibility, the Dems will make political hay out of that. How can we ever get out of the mess we're in???

mmazenko said...


Great to hear from you. Glad to know you still check in from time to time.

I'm with you on the political system. That's why I see our only hope as small groups of individuals in the business world - and politics on a smaller leverl - who see a greater responsibility to be "stewards of their community."

That, I believe, is where teachers who provide character education through literature and writing can make a great impact on our future.