The virtual end of online anonymity

Susan Krashinsky

Last updated on Monday, Aug. 24, 2009 10:11AM EDT

It was the perfect snapshot of a society enamoured with technology and the promise it held: two mutts in front of a boxy computer, one leaning conspiratorially toward his pal. “On the Internet,” he says, “nobody knows you’re a dog.”

As it turned out, the New Yorker had it wrong. In 1993 when that now-famous cartoon ran, the Web was new to most, often compared to John Wayne’s wild stomping grounds. Now, after a judge last week ordered Google to reveal the identity of a bullying blogger who ran a site called “Skanks of NYC,” it has become clear: On the Internet, everybody knows you’re a dog.

Legal precedents are piling up, and online anonymity is becoming a thing of the past. Among bloggers, the consensus seems to be that’s good news.

“When someone’s just blogging anonymously because of employment concerns or whatever, it doesn’t matter,” said Catherine McMillan, who writes a political blog called Small Dead Animals. Government critics in oppressive regimes have every right to secrecy, she added. “As soon as you use anonymity as a shield, to set up hate sites or write outrageous things, you should expect anything and everything to come back at you.”

The blogger at the centre of last week’s case posted insulting comments about Canadian fashion model Liskula Cohen’s “appearance, hygiene and sexual conduct,” according to her statement of claim to the New York State Supreme Court. Before she could launch a defamation suit, she had to know who the blogger was. The court ordered Google, which manages the blog’s publishing platform, to produce the information.

Recent court decisions have seen pseudonyms squashed and identities revealed, but what’s changing isn’t how strictly courts police our online presence, said Vin Crosbie, a new media consultant and professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. What has changed is how much we live our lives in the virtual sphere.

“It’s not a case where people have already had some sort of right to anonymity on these forums,” he said. “It’s never been anonymous. But the majority of the population is now online. That’s why it’s coming to the forefront.”

It’s not a new fight, Mr. Crosbie said, pointing to a 1995 defamation case against forum manager Prodigy. That was before social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook made it easier to interact on the Web. Broader participation attracted more attention to the issues involved with living life online.

“Online forums have become the main way for people to express their opinions,” Mr. Crosbie said. “That’s what changed.”

Ms. McMillan wanted to express her opinions too, but didn’t feel comfortable doing so under a pseudonym.

“I figured if my views were worth sharing, it’s worth attaching my identity to them,” she said. “It’s also a way to self-police. If you know your writing can be attached to you, you make more than a superficial attempt to … manage your content appropriately.”

But “Schmutzie ,” a blogger living in Regina wanted to separate her intensely personal blog from her professional identity.

“I’ve written quite a lot about my teenage years and my 20s, everything from casual drug use to sexual exploration,” she said. “It gets personal. From a professional standpoint, it’s worrisome if employers Google you and find out the sins of your past.”

Schmutzie said she’s been able to maintain her anonymity because she behaves online – nostalgic sex talk notwithstanding, she’s respectful of others. The pseudonym gave her the courage to say more about herself.

“I don’t think my writing would have come as far as it has, or that I would have been as candid,” she said. “But you’re never truly anonymous … these are real human interactions, as virtual as they appear.”

Other bloggers have struggled to keep their identities secret, and they are often losing the fight. On June 16, the U.K. High Court ruled that the Times newspaper had the right to publish the name of a blogger whose identity they had discovered. Detective Constable Richard Horton, the author of the NightJack blog, had sought an injunction to prevent the Times from revealing his identity. His blog contained detailed accounts of police work, investigations and the role of police in society.

“As an anonymous blogger, I was just another policing Everyman but if it came out that I worked in Lancashire, I knew that some of my writing on government policy, partner agencies, the underclass and criminal justice would be embarrassing for the Constabulary,” Mr. Horton wrote in the Times, the day after the decision.

The judge in the case ruled that “blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity,” and Mr. Horton had no reasonable expectation of a right to anonymity.

For Tanis Miller, author of the Attack of the Redneck Mommy blog, anonymity would be too difficult to maintain online.

“You spend a lot of energy looking over your shoulder,” said the Albertan mother of three. “Soon, there’ll be no place for anonymity on the Internet, just by nature of how quickly it’s widening. It’s becoming such an active part of everyone’s life.”

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