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British Court Rules Against Blogger Anonymity 238

Posted by Soulskill
from the reasonable-expectations-often-aren't dept.
An anonymous reader writes "In a dangerous judgment for British bloggers and whistleblowers, a British court has ruled (absurdly) that because blogging itself is a public activity, bloggers have 'no reasonable expectation of privacy' regarding their identities, and newspapers are allowed to publish their identities if they can find them by fair or foul means. A British police detective who recently won the Orwell Prize for his excellent political writing used his blog to write highly critical accounts of police activities and unethical behavior, making very powerful enemies in the process. A well-funded newspaper with powerful connections quickly heard of his blog and decided it was absolutely vital to expose his identity using an investigative journalist. Like any good newspaper, the blogger anonymized the people and the locations in all the cases he discussed on his blog, but the newspaper alleges these were not sufficiently anonymized and complains that they could work out the identities, though British newspapers don't complain that they are allowed to publish the identities of men who are falsely accused of rape and cleared in court. The newspaper also helpfully contacted the blogger's employer, and his job is now threatened."
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British Court Rules Against Blogger Anonymity

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  • Police state (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tsa (15680) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:15PM (#28363337) Homepage

    If you live in the EU but also want to live in a police state, look no further. Great(?) Britain is the place to be.

  • Appeal? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by plasmacutter (901737) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:20PM (#28363399)

    So can this be appealed to a higher court, and will the order be stayed until such time as it can be reviewed?

    I don't see this as an issue until it sets national precedent, otherwise its much like the other short-sighted and technically incompetent rulings in podunk areas of the US later overturned by more discriminating higher courts.

  • by dan_sdot (721837) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:21PM (#28363405)
    First things first: it is hugely unethical to "expose" a blogger who wishes to remain anonymous. The newspaper should be ashamed of itself, and I recommend unsubscribing if you subscribe to it currently. Also, send them a letter telling them why you are unsubscribing.

    That said.... what was the court supposed to do? Penalize the newspaper for doing investigative journalism? Throw the editor in jail for finding out the name of a blogger? "Court Rules Against Blogger Anonymity" is a bit overdone, don't you think?
  • Re:Police state (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Frosty Piss (770223) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:25PM (#28363467)
    The parent has been modded "flaimbait", and perhaps it is, but it is also not far from the truth. Limmited privacy laws, CCTV everywhere, GB is the "poster child" for government intrusivness.
  • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:27PM (#28363487)
    There is no there there in this ruling. All the court said was that if a newspaper can find out who a blogger is, they can publish that information. This was not the court saying that the blog host had to tell the police who it was. There is some questionable logic used by the judge, but this is not a case of government abuse of power. It is a case of a a reporter doing investigative reporting.
  • by Deosyne (92713) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:27PM (#28363489)

    Continuously publish on the Internet, become popular, and expect to remain anonymous? Yeah, good luck with that. Even sources that abstract themselves in the process by providing the information to reporters risk exposure in doing so. Eliminating the middle man just means that there are less people to go through when trying to get to the source. I salute the dude for trying to get the word out about immoral police practices but reality doesn't much care about intent.

    On a side note, that summary is a mess, even discounting the repeated attempts to slant the crap out of the story.

  • by Derekloffin (741455) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:33PM (#28363571)
    It won't be the US that falls into a totalitarian regime masking itself as a democracy. Not for lack of trying, but the UK has a lead on them they'll never catch up.
  • More to the point of double standards...

    What has this newspaper done in the last ten years where they have cited anonymous sources? Would they like another newspaper or perhaps a blogger to helpfully find out their sources and out them to their employers?

    I'm pretty confident that they would have something to say on behalf of anonymity when it comes to their "service".

  • by pigpilot (733494) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:35PM (#28363619) Homepage

    In the UK journalists have never had a right to remain anonymous.

    In fact there are only a handful of people with a right to remain anonymous when their identiy may be easily found out and these are typically rape victims or minors.

    As to the blogger who is certainly breaching his own employment contract and may in fact be breaking the law by disclosing confidential information it is the height of arrogance for them to assume they are somehow above everyone else.

    There is an assumption that a persons private life can remain private unless there is a "public interest" that overrides it, but a person's identity is not protected.

    In this case there is a clear 'public interest' in the identity of a police officer who thinks confidentiality doesn't apply to them as otherwise how could you ever trust the police not to blogg about whatever you tell them.

  • by Budenny (888916) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:37PM (#28363663)

    The blogger in question left enough clues around in his postings that he could be easily identified. Like he for instance referred to his position in the Force, and then referred to his membership in an athletic club. There only was one office of that rank in that club's membership. He then described cases he had been involved in, without adequately disguising the details, so it was clear that it could only have been that case that the blog referred to as having been one the blogger had been involved in.

    He then sought to prevent the Times from publishing his name.

    Well, surely, if you want anonymity, make at least some effort to stop people finding out who you are? It does not seem very rational to leave around all the clues anyone needs to identify you, but to focus your efforts on making it legally impossible for them to publish it, once they have made the fairly small effort required to find out.

    A case which really touched on the anonymity of bloggers would be one in which it was undiscoverable by ordinary means such as the above, but the courts ordered the ISP or provider to disclose the identity. Now that would be a different and much more serious issue.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:40PM (#28363705)

    I agree 100% because you should be willing to lose your job solely because you disagree with your boss' ethics or illegal behavior that you witnessed.

    I mean, nobody should value their livelihood more than justice. Justice can't exist if whistlerblowers hide their identity. Especially if you live and work in a state such as mine that has "at-will employment" laws that state you can be fired for *any* reason...(yes any reason, doesn't have to be legal).

    I can't tell if the OP has been completely brainwashed by the socialist's big brother or if they were just trolling. If you can't tell I was being 110% sarcastic with this post.

  • (absurdly) (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Korbeau (913903) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:42PM (#28363731)

    Please do not state strong opinions out of nowhere in parenthesis without backing them up or giving a source in a first sentence of a summary.

  • The Biggest Danger (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gijoel (628142) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:43PM (#28363741)
    I'm of two minds about this.

    Firstly I think the cop did act in an unprofessional manner by airing opinions about cases that should only have been brought up in court. IANAL, but I wouldn't be surprised if some lawyer tried to use this blog as a way of getting their client reduced/dismissed charges.

    Secondly, this is going to harm whistleblowers in the future. People are going to be less likely to air their thoughts and opinions if they have think its' going to be traced back to them.

    We live in an age of spin. And that means controling the message. Whistle blowing bloggers are a loose cannon and have to be stopped at all costs. That means tracking them down, and bringing what ever pressure you can bear to make them shut and sit down. The Times has now justified any future partisan journalist's attempts to discredit whistle blowers.
  • Re:I for one... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by turing_m (1030530) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:43PM (#28363747)

    Which makes me think people are a LOT stupider than they used to be; because the option is never presented as a viable solution anymore.

    Not more stupid, just more effective means of control (press, TV, education system) coupled with an acceptable standard of living that prevents people from revolting. The option is not presented because it is not in the interest of the presenters.

  • what else? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:44PM (#28363763)

    Perhaps someone's voting preferences will be made public now since it's done in public as well?

  • You Fail (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mattwarden (699984) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:48PM (#28363807) Homepage

    Summary fails. Gagging the newspaper from printing newsworthy information it discovered would be outrageous.

  • by sirwired (27582) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:53PM (#28363873)

    Okay, let's say I did have a reasonable expectation of privacy when posting anonymously online... I own a restaurant and start spamming nasty (but not libelous) reviews about the competition. Does that make it illegal for my competitor to point out that my reviews come from their business rival (and therefore are biased) if they figure out it's me? Should they be able to use a subpeona to find out? No. But if they figure it out without breaking any laws, or abusing the legal process, why shouldn't they be able to publish what they have figured out?

    Now that would be horrible violation of free speech. As anyone with any familiarity of 1st amendment law knows (and yes, I know this case is in the UK), prior restraint is subject to strict scrutiny. This doesn't even come close to meeting that standard. I can't imagine a single lowly district judge that wouldn't slap any such law down without hesitation.

    SirWired

  • by YayaY (837729) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:56PM (#28363911) Homepage

    Yeah, and you know the name of the journalist.

  • Re:Orwell Prize? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:56PM (#28363917)

    Clearly it wouldn't be listed under his real name, since he thought he could keep that a secret.

    Try here - first one, "Jack Night": http://www.theorwellprize.co.uk/the-award/winners-books.aspx?type=blog

  • by ILongForDarkness (1134931) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @01:59PM (#28363967)

    What has this newspaper done in the last ten years where they have cited anonymous sources?

    He's not just a source he's the author. Authors are doing things in public hence they don't have any presumption of privacy. Sources talk privately to a journalist, since it is a private conversation they have a presumption of privacy. If he wanted anonymity he should have been a whistle blower and talked to a journalist.

  • Re:I for one... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by thetoadwarrior (1268702) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:00PM (#28363985) Homepage
    I'll miss out on TV and shopping if protest.
  • by DaveGod (703167) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:07PM (#28364073)

    I don't see why he should expect a right to privacy. If you are going to make public accusations and attacks, then the other parties have a right to defend. If he was merely debating a matter of principle (purely philosophical) then his person would be irrelevant to the argument and yes it would be at a minimum very bad form to name him. But he was pointing figures about specific organisations.

    The right of free speech does not confer any kind of right to anonymity. That is a specific right only granted where it is in the public interest. Indeed it is the reverse: with rights comes responsibility; if you want to say things then be prepared to defend it. There is no question over free speech here, the newspaper is not restricting what he is saying on his blog, they are merely calling it to account (whether you agree with their argument or not).

    That does not at all mean newspapers etc should have an automatic right to discover his information. But if they are able to discover the name via legitimate means, that's his fault for not covering himself.

    Note he is the one actively publishing, publicising and promoting his allegations. This is important. It is only those whom publish allegations that should be held responsible for them. One issue with UK Law* is that it considers any comment posted online without restricted access to be publishing, failing to distinguish between what is really publishing and what is merely chit chat.

    * (by UK law I mean the various laws in the UK member states, there is no such thing as "UK Law").

  • by ILongForDarkness (1134931) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:07PM (#28364075)
    He wasn't claiming to have an anonymous source, he was claiming to be the source himself. It was his opinions that he was stating in public. If you say something in public you can't reasonably expect people not to know who you are. If you don't want the public to know what you think, don't say what you think in public. If you want to make public statements then be willing to own your opinions, or let a jounalist quote a private conversation with you as an anonymous source, that's the choice.
  • Oh don't fool yourself. The papers know they're obsolete, and need to keep "real journalism" in their own ad-laden, corporate owned pages. You just try to make a major-outlet reporter reveal sources and name names; no really, go ahead. I want to watch.

    Blogging isn't safe! Trust the paper! Argh bleah puke. Gimme a break. Yeah, you're right, they should be ashamed. So what? Do you see "for shame!" holding a lot of weight in politics or business..? I don't think "and they should be ashamed of themselves, Your Honor" is how i want to safeguard my freedoms. We're going to need to work a little harder.

  • by 91degrees (207121) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:17PM (#28364179) Journal
    The court has not ruled that anonymity is illegal. The court has simply ruled that should a newspaper have some information that it considers newsworthy, it is entitled to publish.

    Personally, I think it was rather reprehensible of a newspaper not to respect confidentiality as a matter of policy but it's their legal right and it's up to the blogger to protect his own anonymity.
  • by Opportunist (166417) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:28PM (#28364277)

    ...but since he dared to cut the middle man and publish himself he should be punished?

    Are you working for some record label or what?

  • by lgw (121541) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:30PM (#28364297) Journal

    Journalists do not have magic powers. There's no reason why you should have to allow a journalist to put his spin on your account in order to retain anonymity. It's critical to give whistleblowers anonymity if you want to protect yourself from your government. Sadly, the fundamental truth that we need to protect ourselves from our governemnt before any other threat seem to have lost popularity in recent decades.

  • by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:42PM (#28364437) Homepage
    You're barking up the wrong tree: the question is, why would a trustworthy investigative journalist be going after this guy's identity in the first place! If anything, they should be teaming up to uncover police corruption all the way to the top!

    My credit card records and gym memberships might limit the group of people to which I could belong - but come on, investgated by a crusading heroic journalist, like some sort of child molester?

  • Headline Spin (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:48PM (#28364547) Homepage

    Let me rewrite that headline and put the opposite spin on it.

    "In an encouraging move affirming freedom of the press in Britain, a British judge has ruled against newspaper censorship, saying that a newspaper has the right to publish the name of a blogger if they are able to find it. In a landmark decision, Mr Justice Eady refused to grant an injunction to stop The Times from printing the name of Richard Horton, a blogger who anonymously revealed confidential details of police cases on his blog. "

    Does that sound better? Same facts, just reversing the spin.

  • by gsslay (807818) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:51PM (#28364587)

    The real story here, is that the UK government is trying to censor the opinions of its employees.

    No, that's not the real story. that's the story you've made up in your head. Where exactly is the involvement of the UK Government in this story? You won't find any, because there isn't any.

    This police officer was in a position of trust, with access to sensitive information that has a very real impact on people's lives. And he was publishing it on the internet with flimsy anonymity. This is nothing to do with his political opinions, it's about flagrant abuse of his position. This is some guy gossiping about people's lives because he believed he knew better than everyone else.

    Frankly, losing his own anonymity is the least of what he had coming.

  • Re:Headline Spin (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:38PM (#28365215)

    Indeed. That was one of the most loaded Slashdot summaries I've seen in a long time. For example, contrary to the direct claim in the summary, the officer's career is not in danger [bbc.co.uk]. He appears to have received a formal, written warning about behaviour in violation of professional standards he knew he was violating when he wrote the blog.

    In any case, I'm not sure this ruling is a bad thing. As the judge pointed out, if someone is being critical of essential public institutions and claiming a certain authority, there is a public interest argument that the people reading the blog should not be prevented through legal restraint from finding out how qualified and experienced the person actually is. After all, if The Times could identify the blogger, they obviously weren't really anonymous in the first place, were they? And as the parent points out, upholding anonymity here would in turn violate the freedom of the press, also not something to be done without a very good reason.

    In any case, if something being announced or discussed on a blog is serious enough to threaten the blogger's career prospects, shouldn't that blogger already be questioning the ethics of continuing to work for that employer anyway? There's a long-standing tradition that when senior military or political figures wish to criticise something they truly believe to be unethical or inappropriate behaviour, they do so in their resignation speech.

  • by Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:51PM (#28365393)

    ...but since he dared to cut the middle man and publish himself he should be punished?

    Did you actually read what was in the blog?

    Are you still sure he shouldn't be punished?

    Perhaps we should start allowing doctors and lawyers to violate doctor-patient confidentiality and attorney-client privilege as well, as long as they pseudo-anonymise the blogs where they do it? Then we could start respecting the anonymous briefing around Westminster, because those guys are totally doing it for the good of everyone, and I'd definitely want the media to give full weight to what they have to say without putting their name to it.

  • by ljw1004 (764174) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:58PM (#28365469)

    I think most investigative journalism involves identifying people who wish to remain anonymous... "Which politician was the recipient of this bribe? (sorry, he wants to remain anonymous)"

  • by ILongForDarkness (1134931) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @04:29PM (#28365843)
    Nope not a working journalist. I'm not arguing against the ability to be an anonymous whistle blower, I'm arguing against being an anonymous journalist. If I'm reading someone's opinion and am going to be protesting government actions, or even just quoting them among friends I want to know more about them than that he goes by Xfactor41 on talkingtrash.com.

    A journalist with an anonymous source can be tracked down and talked with, can get back in contact with his source (possibly) if more information is needed, and if it is something where an anonymous source should be revealed it can be accomplished. For example leaked national security information, its found to be libelous (journalists in most free countries have a "qualified privilege" as far as defamation goes as long as they spoke in something that is in the publics interest, sources do not share that right) can be forced to reveal sources. If the author themselves are anonymous then what? You just have a statement that can't be corrobated and defamation laws that can't be enforced.

    Part of what keeps the social contract working is that you have freedom to say what you want but you also have a responsibility for what you say. If you allow anonymous journalism all that happens if an author gets a reputation for shoddy research, or their comments are found to be illegal is they open up an new account with a different user name. There is no longer the responsibility that goes along with the special protections journalists enjoy and the necessary public service that journalism is supposed to provide.

  • by Ash-Fox (726320) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @05:03PM (#28366241)

    Too bad you don't have individual rights in Britain.

    No point having something written that the government is supposed to obide by when they won't. For examples of this, see USA.

  • Yeah (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @05:07PM (#28366305)

    I totally agree. Like, just because voting is a public process doesn't mean you have a right to privacy about who you voted for.

  • by Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @05:15PM (#28366393) Journal

    So many people are missing the point.

    A. Revealing a whistleblower bad.

    B. Government censorship bad.

    C. B >> A in importance, so says history.

    Just because one thinks one is more important doesn't imply one thinks the other is wrong. You can think both are important and then do a value-judgement on which should take precedence. Personally, I think history shows the latter over the former. "Legally anonymous" whistleblowers are a good, but woefully inadequate, watchdog on a government with the legal ability to censor.

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