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Can Outing an Anonymous Blogger be Justified? 197

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the scruples-be-damned dept.
netbuzz writes "Absolutely, depending on the circumstances, yet a Florida newspaper's attempt to unmask 'a political group hiding behind the name of a fictitious person' has sparked outrage in some circles. Part of the reason for that outrage is that the paper posted to its Web site a surveillance video of the blogger visiting its advertising department, a tactic the editor says he now regrets. What's really at issue here is the right to publish anonymously vs. the right to remain anonymous. The former exists, the latter does not."
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Can Outing an Anonymous Blogger be Justified?

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  • Does not, eh? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Qzukk (229616) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:00PM (#18299978) Journal
    What's really at issue here is the right to publish anonymously vs. the right to remain anonymous. The former exists, the latter does not.

    Is that like how the Constitution provides specific grounds for revoking habeas corpus, but it's OK if the government ignores it because you don't have the right in the first place?

    How can one claim that someone has the right to "publish anonymously" if a person cannot be anonymous?
    • Re:Does not, eh? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by dreamchaser (49529) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:02PM (#18299994) Homepage Journal
      Actually, neither 'right' with regards to anonymnity is enumerated in the Constitution, nor is any right to privacy outside of unlawful searches.
      • Re:Does not, eh? (Score:4, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:09PM (#18300048)
        And they're not required to be!

        * Ninth Amendment - Protection of rights not specifically enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
                The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
      • Re:Does not, eh? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by FutureDomain (1073116) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:11PM (#18300056)
        The Constitution protects the "Freedom of the Press", but not the "Freedom of Anonymity of the Press". There are steps you can take if you want to remain anonymous, but no laws preventing someone from outing a blogger who doesn't keep his identity a well-kept secret.
        • And yet, at the time of the writing of the Constitution, publishing under psuedonyms was common practice, even by the Founding Fathers.
          • by kclittle (625128)
            So? That doesn't mean they felt they had a "right" to remain anonymous, as is evidenced by the fact that those same Founding Fathers did not see it appropriate to include said "right" as an 11th Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
        • Re:Does not, eh? (Score:4, Insightful)

          by ronanbear (924575) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @01:09PM (#18300426)
          And yet the paper would argue that it's allowed to protect its sources. You can't have it both ways privacy is not a privilege that may be conferred by a newspapers whim.

          Either the press has the freedom that allows it to publish anonymous sources or it doesn't. If they have the right they should have respected the bloggers rights.
          • by kclittle (625128)
            The right of a journalist to protect his/her sources has no bearing on the right of a source to expect/demand protection, either from the journalist or a third party. There is *no* right to remain anonymous.

          • by DRJlaw (946416)
            You can't have it both ways privacy is not a privilege that may be conferred by a newspapers whim.

            Either the press has the freedom that allows it to publish anonymous sources or it doesn't. If they have the right they should have respected the bloggers rights.


            You've misconstrued the ability of a newspaper to protect its sources. Most states prevent their prosecutors from compelling a newspaper to reveal its sources to the government because permitting such a power would chill free speech. Note that t
          • Re:Does not, eh? (Score:4, Insightful)

            by TubeSteak (669689) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @02:05PM (#18300752) Journal

            And yet the paper would argue that it's allowed to protect its sources.
            Most States have laws that allow journalists to protect their anonymous sources.
            Note: There is no similar Federal Law.

            You can't have it both ways privacy is not a privilege that may be conferred by a newspapers whim
            I'm not sure what you mean by that. If the newspapers find out your secret... then you're subject to their whim.

            Either the press has the freedom that allows it to publish anonymous sources or it doesn't.
            They do, at the state level.

            If they have the right they should have respected the bloggers rights.
            What right did he have? The right to publish anonymously?
            He used it.

            You seem to be fundamentally misunderstanding the right to publish anonymously. All it means is that the Government can't make anonymous publishing a crime. What it doesn't mean is that no one is allowed to figure out who you are and tell the world.

            Staying anonymous was the bloggers job.
            What legal obligation did the newspaper have to keep his identity a secret?
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by DeadChobi (740395)
              I agree with you.

              I would like to add that it was probably unethical to use a video surveillance tape to attempt to out the blogger when that was not the purpose of the tape. There's a difference between setting up a camera for the express purpose of identifying your customers and setting up a camera to keep your advertising department safe. He wasn't informed that he was being taped for the purpose of outing him. It's reasonable for me to assume that unless there's some pressing criminal investigation that
              • There's a difference between setting up a camera for the express purpose of identifying your customers and setting up a camera to keep your advertising department safe
                They want the intent of their network of surveillance cameras back.
              • by TubeSteak (669689)

                It's reasonable for me to assume that unless there's some pressing criminal investigation that video surveillance tapes will not be used to out me in any way.

                That is not a reasonable expectation.
                It strikes me as a bit naive.

                Those tapes belong to the business.
                They can do whatever they want with them.

                To be perfectly clear: If the newspaper wanted to stream their surveillance footage on homepage 24/7, nobody could stop them.

                The law mostly limits when the Government (in the form of Law Enforcement or the legal

                • by DeadChobi (740395)
                  I was talking about ethics, not laws. What is legal and what is ethical are somewhat distant subsets, and what is legal and ethical is a small union of those two subsets. It would be unethical, for example, to show all my friends surveillance pictures of me in the newspaper office taking out a personal ad for a gay lover because I may not want my friends to know that. If they discover it in the newspaper then it's my own damn fault and a completely different story.

                  It's kind of a grey area in the interface b
          • The sources of a newspaper are KNOWN, they are NOT anonymous, except to the public at large, but the reporter and editor and in fact the entire newspaper staff ARE known. So we still got a degree of accountability. If you want to remain anonymous as a news source you must first convince a reporter to risk being thrown in jail (a legal action that can be used by the state) to reveal his sources.

            However if you publish anonymous on a blog, you got no such layer, anyone can do it, and without anyone to throw i

      • by AlanS2002 (580378)
        Actually, neither 'right' with regards to anonymnity is enumerated in the Constitution, nor is any right to privacy outside of unlawful searches.

        The US constitution is neither the first nor the last word on what can be spoken of as rights, if you submit to being able to have a meaningful conversation of such things in the first place.
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by kenwd0elq (985465)
        The "right to privacy" doesn't NEED to be enumerated: Amendment IX The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people. Amendment X The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. The text of the Constitution http://constitution.org/cons/constitu.htm [constitution.org] is pretty clear; the Federal government has only the 19 enumerated
    • Re:Does not, eh? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by John Hasler (414242) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:07PM (#18300030) Homepage
      > Is that like how the Constitution provides specific grounds for revoking habeas corpus,
      > but it's OK if the government ignores it because you don't have the right in the first
      > place?

      No. Aside from the fact that you do have the right to habeas corpus, this has nothing to do with the government at all.

      > How can one claim that someone has the right to "publish anonymously" if a person cannot
      > be anonymous?

      You have the right to "publish anonymously". You have the right to be anonymous. However, no one is obligated to help you be anonymous. It's up to you to keep your identity secret. If you screw up and your secret gets out, tough.

      I wouldn't do business with a paper that publishes surveillance videos of its customers, though.
      • >> Is that like how the Constitution provides specific grounds for revoking habeas corpus,
        >> but it's OK if the government ignores it because you don't have the right in the first
        >> place?

        >No. Aside from the fact that you do have the right to habeas corpus, this has nothing to do with the government at all.

        You may not be keeping up with politics, but the GPP's allusion is to the current AG's (and President's) latest argument for why they're Constiutionally permitted to imprison American
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward
      There is no requirement to identify yourself when you publish. That is "the right to publish anonymously". It is not a guarantee: You can't say "this is not to be linked to me" and expect someone else (like the government) to make sure that it isn't. If you want to stay anonymous, it is your responsibility, hence no right to remain anonymous.
      • Re:Does not, eh? (Score:4, Insightful)

        by FooAtWFU (699187) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:46PM (#18300298) Homepage
        It's still pretty rude (or worse) for the newspaper in question to do something like this, whether it's a violation of some sort of intrinsic civil liberty / constitutional right / etc or otherwise. Therein lies the rub. Not everything has to be some sort of civil liberties violation or against the law for it to be the Wrong Thing to Do.
        • by Khaed (544779)
          Not everything has to be some sort of civil liberties violation or against the law for it to be the Wrong Thing to Do.

          And that's something 90% of the people responding to this are missing.

          It might be legal to expose an anonymous blogger, but that doesn't necessarily make it right. Some anonymous bloggers may need to be exposed. I sure as hell don't think we need a law against exposing them. Newspapers should be responsible, not act like a bunch of children.
    • by sugapablo (600023)
      Plenty of places where people can post anonymously. Lots of Anonymous Cowards here. :)

      Plenty of public machines and IP addresses where you can post to anonymous message boards and editable pages like http://subuse.net/ [subuse.net] and http://subuse.net/level2 [subuse.net]

    • by sumdumass (711423)
      Habeas corpus has long been determined not to apply to foreigners unless some law made it do so. As for the american citizens, if they are acting in terrorism against our contry, I would hope that insurection and rebelion does kick in.

      For the government to ignore something, it would need to be in place in the first place. I don't think this is happening at all here.

      And as far as publish anonymously, there is no real protection for that. There is a freedom of speech and we have traditionaly taken that to mea
  • by siglercm (6059) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:05PM (#18300014) Journal

    What's really at issue here is the right to publish anonymously vs. the right to remain anonymous. The former exists, the latter does not.
    It seems to me that their conclusion is, logically, the wrong way around. IMHO, we all have the right to remain anonymous. However, if we want to publish we may give up that right. Publishing is totally different from being an anonymous source of information, quoted in a publication.

    Or am I off my rocker?
    • by AlanS2002 (580378)
      My thoughts exactly. Do we not, by publishing something in the public domain, by definition invite a lack of anonymity?
      • Only if you piss off the wrong people.

        The problem is not so much that veil of anonymity can be pierced, but that the government has, in the midst of its own quest to make our private lives a thing of the past, provided would-be piercers with way too much ammunition.
  • by Creepy Crawler (680178) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:10PM (#18300054)
    When I think of "anonymous bloggers", I get this image [penny-arcade.com].

    Or, I recall that "Multiple Theology Degree, exquisite super-intelligentsia" Essjay [wikipedia.org]. Oh, thats right.. He's a redneck hick who lives about 80 Mi south of me (Louisville, KY).

    Anybody can say whatever they want, but due to the "Credibility" of the internet, it usually means something is going to be believed. Not good, as most people haven't the logic or intelligence to discern real from fiction.
  • by toupsie (88295) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:12PM (#18300068) Homepage
    Absolutely. Journalism should not be the art of protecting secrets. The first amendment right to a free press does not have a caveat that states that people with hidden agendas are protected from exposure. As long as this is not a government mandated revelation of secrecy of a citizen, there is no issue at hand. The press has a right and I feel a duty to expose all that want to be a part of the public debate both for and against what I personally believe. The only reason the editor feels that this was a bad choice is that he doesn't have the requisite reproductive organs to stand up for what they did which was good reporting. There is no right to anonymity when to start to engage in the public debate. If you can maintain it, that is through your own efforts and not through some Constitutional mechanism.
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)
      I'm thinking of the cases where corporations have been posing as bloggers to promote their products. Undoubtedly a case where revealing them is justified.

      This sounds very similar. A political group posing as an individual? Please. They're misrepresenting themselves and then they get mad when someone calls them on it?
    • by MrSteveSD (801820)
      Surely the ability for people to address the public anonymously is beneficial and should be protected. e.g. Anonymous whistle-blowers.
      • by toupsie (88295)
        Surely the ability for people to address the public anonymously is beneficial and should be protected. e.g. Anonymous whistle-blowers.

        So we are going to create a protected class of citizens that can infringe on the first amendment rights of others? Who gets to decide who can maintain a protected state of anonymity? This is bad policy. Sunshine is always the best environment for speech.
        • by polar red (215081)
          Yes, if you are not in danger of being prosecuted for your opinions. Try saying the war in Iraq is unjustified, you'll get your dose of hatred, isn't it so, dixie chicks ?
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by gclef (96311)
            The constitution does not exist to protect you from the hatred of others. You are free to speak your mind. So are the people who disagree with you. This is how it should be.

            Whistleblowers and informants are a case where the privacy of a source should be protected by the government officials that they are working with, but that is not a constitutional right. Again, this is how it should be. Whistleblower's treatment need to be balanced against the rights of the accused. An incredibly important right i
  • -1, poor style (Score:4, Interesting)

    by pla (258480) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:24PM (#18300146) Journal
    Can Outing an Anonymous Blogger be Justified?
    Absolutely, depending on the circumstances


    No editorial slant on this FP, no-sir-ee!

    Many of our fundamental "rights" in the modern world very much depend on not only having anonymity before doing something, but after as well.

    In particular, and I expect the FP author had this exact situation in mind, when the exercise of speech/publishing relates to the commission of a crime. But in all but a few situations (defamation or lying to a grand jury come to mind), the crime and the speech exist as entirely separate concepts, with the latter protected.

    Even when the speech does break the law directly (defamation), you need to consider how much credibility an anonymous source really has. If I say "The PS3 sucks", I may have defamed Sony, but no one will care. If US VP of marketing for SCEA says the same thing, it would make headlines (at least in the geek news community).

    If I cheat on my taxes, that breaks the law. If I brag about it anonymously - The bragging doesn't break the law, and I have every right to maintain my anonymity in the bragging. If the IRS catches me for the crime itself, no foul; If they hunt me down like a dog and then find out I just bragged but have filed accurately, they have wasted time and money and potentially injured me financially or reputation-wise in the process, despite no actual crime occuring.



    Anonymity has a dark side, but without an absolute right to it, we may as well let the government install "The Eye" in our living rooms right now.
    • There never, ever, has been an absolute right to anonymity. The day people have that right, is the day that society will cease to exist.

      Society exists because of law and peer pressure to conform to its rules. Where anonimity is guaranteed, peer pressure cannot exist, and law cannot be enforced.

      There are restrictions on what government can do to invade your privacy, but privacy and anonimity are two different things. In fulfilling its duties to you, government necesarily has a lot of information abo
  • by Gothmolly (148874) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:32PM (#18300206)
    I do not think it means what you think it means.

    So it can "absolutely" be justified, yet it is also "depending on the circumstances".

    Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

    Why is it obvious/implicit that you don't have the right to remain anonymous, save in a society where you have no rights?

  • by Doc Ruby (173196) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @12:50PM (#18300322) Homepage Journal
    What makes anonymity sacrosanct? Someone does something to be anonymous, their perogative. If someone else does something to expose their identity, that's their perogative, too. If what they do to expose them isn't itself wrong, then they haven't done anything wrong. If they use public info (eg. cameras recording public appearances) and deduction, there's not wrong. The exposed anonymous might not like it, but there's no intrinsic, universal right to anonymity just because they want it. And in fact exposing hidden players in public acts is the primary responsibility of newspapers and other periodical publishers.

    I wish there were a lot more outrage about newspapers keeping some people anonymous. Anonymous sources used to spin news, lie to damage coverage and public knowledge. When the source isn't actually anonymous at all, to the reporter (or their editors), but is anonymized by the newspaper, creating more ignorance rather than more knowledge. Especially when that anonymity makes unaccountable some people who are reliably wrong, lying, or just predictably spinning.

    Newspapers have a glorious future working to expose trolls in our new mediasphere full of cheap and easy cover. We need more exposure, and more support for it.
    • That is a fair question, and I hope it gets more attention.

      My answer is: by remaining anonymous, you can avoid retailiation by powerful entities that may not like what you have to say - whether your articles are true or not. Benjamin Franklin knew this, and sent his letters to the newspaper editor, under a psuednym.

      As a more modern example: suppose you knew of a utility company committing some type of a crime. You expose the crime on your blog. The utility company, although guilty, files a lawsuit against y
    • "Newspapers have a glorious future working to expose trolls in our new mediasphere full of cheap and easy cover. We need more exposure, and more support for it."

      I think as Rathergate and Ruetersgate (gods I hate the -gate meme, but it is so useful) have shown that they are part of the trollers, and that the blogosphere are the ones doing the outing of trolls.
  • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @02:11PM (#18300778) Journal
    I think this discussion can be more enlightened by considering some particular hypothetical cases.

    In this case the anonymously-posting group whose member was exposed was critical of a prominent county politician.

    Suppose the anonymous poster(s) had been critical of the Chinese government's suppression of Falun Gong or occupation of Tibet.

    Suppose the anonymous poster had been Salman Rushdie, at the height of the "Satanic Verses" flap, and the outing included his address.

    Suppose the time was shortly before the American Revolution and the posters were people like Samuel Adams, William Molineux, Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, and Paul Revere.

    Think about what happened to people like Yuri Orlov, Alexander Litvinenko, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Wang Xiaoning, Nathan Hale, Theo Van Gogh.

    I could add names for hours. And, yes, only some of these particular critics of the powerful did so anonymously, so don't bother pointing that out: This list shows what can happen to critics and why they might want to be anonymous.

    Maybe this guy won't be sent to a gulag, poisoned by thallium, vanish into the Chinese prison system, or assassinated on the street in broad daylight. But would you be surprised if he is the subject of continual harassment from now on - at least until he moves to another county?
    • Maybe this guy won't be ... poisoned by thallium ...

      Or, as in Litvinenko's case, polonium-210 - though thallium would have done the job in sufficient amounts.
    • Who knows? Maybe the anonymous poster is part of a massive, well-funded astroturf campaign. Maybe the anonymous poster is a sock-puppet for the guy running against him. I can think of just as many reasons for the person to be anonymous for nefarious reasons as for good ones. IMHO, it's up to the newspaper to make the decision about whether the poster should be outed or not, and if so, how far.

      The newspaper can than be criticized or praised depending on the information. For example, posting someone's a

  • if they're in politics or influencing politics, they should be public.

    full disclosure forever! -- I am a former practicing journalist.
  • by paj1234 (234750) on Saturday March 10, 2007 @02:28PM (#18300890)
    Sounds like what happened to the "Girl With A One Track Mind". It's a (formerly) anonymous blog and book about sex from a female point of view. A newspaper printed extracts from her book, and then went on to reveal her identity without her permission. This is the email that she received from the newspaper:

    Aug 5, 2006 11:08 AM

    Dear Miss [my name],

    We intend to publish a prominent news story in this weekend's paper, revealing your identity as the author of the book, Girl With a One Track Mind.

    We have matched up the dates of films you have worked on - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Batman Begins and Lara Croft Tomb Raider - and it is clear that they correlate to your blog. We have obtained your birth certificate, and details about where you went to school and college.

    We propose to publish the fact that you are 33 and live in [my address] -London, and that your mother, [her name], is a [her address] -based [her profession]. The article includes extracts from your book and blog, relevant to your career in the film industry. We also have a picture of you, taken outside your flat.

    Unfortunately, the picture is not particularly flattering and might undermine the image that has been built up around your persona as Abby Lee. I think it would be helpful to both sides if you agreed to a photo shoot today so that we can publish a more attractive image.

    We are proposing to assign you our senior portrait photographer, Francesco Guidicini, and would arrange everything to your convenience, including a car to pick you up. We would expect you to provide your own clothes and make up. As the story will be on a colour page, we would prefer the outfit to be one of colourful eveningwear.

    We did put this proposal to you yesterday, but heard nothing back. Clearly this is now a matter of urgency, and I would appreciate you contacting me as soon as possible. To avoid any doubt we will, of course, publish the story as it is if we do not hear from you.

    Yours sincerely,
    Nicholas Hellen
    Acting News Editor
    Sunday Times

    The author had to leave her job and home. Both she and her parents had photographers camped outside their houses. Even her friends were pestered by journalists. Here is how she felt about it: http://girlwithaonetrackmind.blogspot.com/2006/08/ thoughts.html [blogspot.com]
  • In all fairness, politicians have to live up to what they say in public, why shouldn't everyone else ?
    I don't think anyone should have a "right" to be anonymous, if they want to be taken seriously they need to stand up & be heard like the people they speak out against.
    • In all fairness, politicians have to live up to what they say in public, why shouldn't everyone else ?

      Because politicians chose to become "public persons" (and have their dirty laundry aired in the press) as a voluntary trade for their attempt to acquire coercive political power.

      An anonymous poster has explicitly chosen the opposite course: Forgoing coercive power and influencing others only by the persuasiveness of his words, in order to retain a higher level of privacy.

      He has chosen to expose only his an
      • by Joebert (946227)

        He has chosen to expose only his anonymous persona to the mud-slinging of political discourse (and potential nonverbal retaliation), not to put his private life, peace, possessions, and employment, along with those of his family, in harm's way.

        In other words, he wants to play the game but doesn't want to take responsibility if he's wrong.

        I take it you also disapprove of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay publishing the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym "Publius (which allowed people to

  • The outrage isn't what the city is doing, it's why the city is doing it. They aren't trying to discover the blogger so they can reward him, they're doing it so they can shut him up and get back to corruption as usual.

    This isn't a video of some criminal holding up a liquor store. Hell, it's not even a video of someone running a traffic light. It's a video of someone buying a classified ad! Geez!
  • Outing an anonymous blogger can be, but video taping customers coming into your advertising department and then using those videos to identify and out them is never justified. That has nothing to do with bloggers or anonymity or anything else, it is a fundamental breach of trust. I'm sure the company regrets it because any sane person would refuse to do business with a company that behaves that way.
  • Whether it's an MP3, documentation of a government coverup or personal details, information tends find a way out.
  • Freedom of speech is not a freedom say anything anonymously. As a matter of fact, it is reasonable to demand that whoever speaks identifies themselves. Otherwise, freedom to say anything becomes a freedom to lie. As long as one stands behind what one has to say, one should be allowed to say anything (with the usual exception to incitement to do harm). But anonymity takes away the responsibility for one's words.
  • "Absolutely...The former exists, the latter does not."

    Such advocacy for an issue does not belong in a Slashdot summary, regardless of if it is just a quote of someone else. We should be about open and even discussion here, and not stating one's conclusions right from the get-go. That's what TFA is all about, not the Slashdot summary.

  • Between anonymity/freedom of press and conflict of interest.

    While the article authors have the right to remain anonymous, every article should state upfront whether or not the author stands to benefit from the publication (e.g. a conservative lobby group attacking the Democrats).

    And, laws have to be made that if authors are found to lie about this conflict of interest, there should be some sort of penalty.

    i.e. you can be anonymous and say/lie whatever you want, but you have to honestly state whether and if

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