On Expectations of Privacy and Internet Anonymity

D.A. Ridgely

D.A. Ridgely holds degrees in philosophy and law. (He doesn't really hold them, they just hang there on the wall or peek out as initials after his name. (Actually, that isn't true, either. Those are mere symbols giving evidence of his possession of those degrees. (“Possession,” strictly speaking, being a metaphor of sorts.))) (He is overly fond of parenthetical expressions.)

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28 Responses

  1. Mike Farmer says:

    To me there’s a difference between the “internet” and a particular site. Posting anything on the internet is a risk to privacy and anonymity — however, I don’t post willy-nilly on the internet — I choose sites I trust to do the best they can to respect my participation. If the internet is to get better at respect and trust, then sites have to be responsible to moderate and gain trust — as this competition goes forward, the loose sites which accept anything will likely go by the wayside, whereas the sites with integrity will likely succeed.Report

  2. RTod says:

    A good post, DA, and one that underlines the irony of the recent drama here: that is, the use of threatening to take away someone’s internet anonymity in a post with threads arguing (by the same person) that internet anonymity was a natural right worth fighting the righteous fight. I don’t want to use said drama too much in my reply, but I would be lying if I said it’s not at the forefront of my mind when looking at this subject. So, perhaps I’ll skip the LOG drama particulars and comment on my own reactions to them.

    My first reaction last night was a professional one, as the potential liability issues were indeed the first to pop up in my head. (As I reread my own comments in the thread this morning what stood out was my utter disbelief that someone had so casually disregarded such issues.) But as I’ve been thinking about the issue of internet anonymity, I realize that on a personal level I am of two minds:

    Historically, I have tended to post more often when the subject is HRC, because I feel I know more than most about that and can therefore contribute. But my opinions are not the status quo of my industry, and if I’m being truthful I might not be as forthcoming about my criticisms of the current system if I knew they might be forwarded to, say, my employer. So in that regard, I welcome the anonymity.

    But at the same time, I recognize that this freedom (like all freedoms) is a double-edged sword. To put it simply, being anonymous allows people to be a complete douche – or worse. While reading the Wikipedia link provided here to learn more about “anonymous,” I was rather horrified to learn that these glorified Soldiers of Freedom went out of their way to harass and terrorize (and encouraged other to harass and terrorize as well) some minor who – in a way that suggested she was coming from a place of absolutely no power whatsoever – had simply wanted people to stop using profanity. This type of action, done anonymously, seems to me to scream of nothing but an overabundance of boredom, immaturity and cowardice. These instances, like the occasional troll post I see here and elsewhere, remind me of the Zimbardo experiments at Stanford where ordinary people were asked to play either prison guard or inmate over long periods of time. The horrifying outcome was that people – when they believe they have power over others and can act with impunity – could be cruel and sadistic uber-dicks. To me, this is what internet anonymity CAN lead to – feeling that you have the power to inflict harm (psychological, financial or otherwise) over someone without fear of punishment.

    And so, in the end, maybe the focus on the internet – be it with a HBO wild west or HBO drug trade metaphor – is merely a red herring. Because at the end of the day, it isn’t the internet that makes folks on the League decide to listen to different points of view, exchange ideas and learn – anonymously or not. And it wasn’t the internet that made an anonymous collective commit acts of sadistic cruelty on an innocent teenage girl, or – to bring it all home to the LOG – made people here post insinuated threats people’s jobs and feeling of personal security. It was people choosing to act responsibly, and respectfully, as a part of a community – or not.

    I suspect that at the end of the day, the internet itself is meaningless to this argument.Report

  3. James Fallows just posted a graph charting the rise of filibusters in the Senate, I read this AM at the Starbuck on 47 and Ninth, and prompted me to start a note to him about morality, justice, mis-woven social fabric, free surface effects, algorithms, digital v analog value assignment, shame, service, sex-positivism, Culture11, Jaren Lanier, James Poulos, Alan Jacobs, and yes, Deadwood.

    I decided it was too long to inflict on Mr. Fallows, but have been reworking it on the bus ride back to Montauk into what I hope will be another guest post here at LOOG. The tentative title is “Epistemological Cloture Watch”.Report

  4. Will H. says:

    To my knowledge, there is, in fact, a legal expectation of privacy in internet use.
    How much depends on what type of use.
    The rules for electronic documents differ from paper documents in a few important ways.
    Say someone posts something about you personally.
    It’s either true or untrue.
    If it’s untrue, then this is defamation (if the information was unflattering).
    If it’s true, then it’s invasion of privacy.
    In defamation cases with print documents, the author is protected by a timely withdrawal and retraction.
    Not so with electronic documents.
    There was an instance of a high-profile blogger in California that was successfully sued for defamation, even though it was an error made in good faith and the information was posted for less than one day.
    In privacy matters with electronic documents, one must first request removal of the material, or any judgment (other than covering court costs) is forfeited.
    Not so with paper documents.
    There was a case (again, in California) that held that a sheriff’s deputy undergoing a divorce whose wife had posted information about him online, including his address and cell phone number. He won an award as a privacy matter. The judgment was reduced on appeal, because he had not contacted her to request removal of the materials.
    E-mails are held under the “postcard rule.” This states that the expectation of privacy in an e-mail is the same as that with a postcard.
    Just this month, the 6th Circuit issued a ruling that there was, in fact, some form of expectation of privacy in e-mails. What exactly that might be has yet to be determined. But this had to do with a case of seizure of some 27,000 e-mails in a criminal investigation.
    Getting your hands on someone’s IP is of limited use. You might be able to tell how much they pay for a connection, and what city they’re in, but not much else.
    If, however, you have the authority to contact that provider and give them that IP, those are the people that can give you the information. They know every website you’ve visited.
    IP’s are allocated by the provider, and they change from time to time.
    As for you, personally, I don’t care whether that’s your real name or not.
    I’m just hoping that’s your real hat.Report

    • D.A. Ridgely in reply to Will H. says:

      It’s mine.

      The phrase “reasonable expectation of privacy” is a constitutional standard regarding government invasions of the personal right to privacy and is inapplicable in private dealings among non-state agents. The constitutional jurisprudence in this area is a mare’s nest of confusion. Regardless, I used the phrase informally because I think it captures a morally significance insight.

      I mentioned libel (the written form of defamation) above. Defamation as an intentional tort must be more than unflattering, it must cause damage or injury to the defamed. Typically, that’s damned hard to substantiate. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Supreme Court eventually apply a modified version of the N.Y. Times v. Sullivan actual malice /public figure rule to the blogosphere.

      As far as I know, actionable invasion of privacy as an intentional tort is exclusively a matter of state law. No doubt it’s an occasionally useful remedy in, say, California where public personae are more frequently financially viable assets, but not so much in, say, Virginia. *shrug* Again, I’m interested in the moral arguments in play here, not so much the various possible legal theories I (or, for that matter, any 1L) could imagine.

      I’ve managed to learn the identity of several anonymous commenters over the years using their IP address as one datum. Few people who spend any significant time chatting on the internet haven’t also left a “virtual paper trail” if one is clever and inclined to follow it. And while my Google-Fu may be a bit above average, I hardly qualify as an internet adept.Report

  5. Matty says:

    You know I always thought D.A Ridgely was a pseudonym.

    As for myself, Matthew is my real first name but I choose not to put my full name because.

    1. I’m not comfortable with it, which is reason enough on its own.
    2. I have some work related stuff on the web as well and I’d prefer potential employers find that rather than my blog comments. Not that I’m ashamed of anything I’ve written (except for the time I said Heidegger was hilarious) but pushing it up the search rankings in this context seems the equivalent of walking into an interview and insisting on talking about last nights TV.Report

  6. BSK says:

    Obviously, the site administrators are free to handle the site as they will. They must also deal with the consequences of their actions. If they go posting everyone’s personal information all over the web, they likely won’t find many participants in their community. Personally, I seek sites that are willing to protect the anonymity of their posters, if it is so desired. As a teacher in an independent school, where we are beholden to the whims of sometimes very insane parents, I have to be careful what my name is attached to. Simply offering opinions that do not seem to jibe with “school culture” can land me in hot water, even if there is nothing illegal or even inappropriate about them. Perhaps this is the reality for others (I’ve only ever been a teacher, so I don’t know how other industries work), but I know for me, it’s a concern and a point of emphasis when I comment. I appreciate those sites that make efforts to protect anonymity and largely avoid those that don’t.Report

  7. Jaybird says:

    If anyone is interested enough, they can easily find out who I am IRL… which means they can ruin my life if they are so inclined.

    The main force I use to protect myself from my life being ruined is to primarily hang out on places that does not attract folks inclined to ruin folks’ lives.

    This is what makes me all fidgety when I find someone display that particular inclination.Report

  8. Rufus F. says:

    “(1) Is there a reasonable expectation of privacy on the internet? (2) If so, what, if any, are its limits? (3) If there are limits, is the expectation of privacy, reasonable or not, conditioned upon the anonymous participant’s compliance with certain standards of behavior?”

    It’s pretty interesting how this dovetails with the discussion of wikileaks- just replace “on the internet” with “in governmental positions” or “in diplomatic discussions”. Really, there’s an advantage to allowing people to speak off-the-record that is healthy for discussion.

    To my mind, the advantage of a website like this is that people can discuss issues in a more frank way than they might if we were at, say, the company picnic with their boss. So I do think there is a reasonable expectation that their anonymity won’t be violated. Look, all of us who write for this site get sent the email and IP addresses of anyone who comments on our posts. I think it’s fair to expect that, if someone calls me a moron in response to a post I wrote about Plato that I’m not going to respond on the site with, “That’s easy for you to say, Mr. Obama at whitehouse dot gov!” Not only do I think it would be suicidal for a site to make a habit of that, if they already allowed commenters to use nicknames, because people would stop coming to that site; I also suspect there’s a legal expectation that we won’t use that information against a commenter.

    Also, let’s make this clear: What Barrett actually did in that thread is nothing like “outing” the identity of a specific commenter and, while I think it was very inappropriate, was a lot less inappropriate than my example (Also, Mr. President, I will not reveal which commenter nickname you’re using [Although it’s Bob Cheeks]). Finally, writing something inappropriate on a website comment thread while angry is regretable, but I can’t say that I’ve never done it. Report

    • Heidegger in reply to Rufus F. says:

      For that, Rufus, you have my eternal gratitude. Seriously. I also think it would be very suicidal, too. Within 24 hours, LOOG would have Zero hits.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Heidegger says:

        Well, it goes both ways, right? I mean, Jay’s correct that, with a little detective work, it would be easy to figure out personal information about any one of us and find out something about any one of us that our employers/grandparents wouldn’t want to know about. So, I feel like being part of this community means that I won’t do that to someone else and they won’t do that to me. Pretty much like every internet community with a degree of anonymity.

        Having said all that, and in order not to sound so damn self-righteous about this, I do think that a huge mistake was made here, but I also think that both parties were very responsible in how they handled it. If every political office holder who screwed up resigned in response, the world would be a much better place. So let’s not forget that.Report

        • Heidegger in reply to Rufus F. says:

          It is reassuring, Rufus, to know that you have such integrity that you would never cross such a line regardless of what was thrown at you. Not would I, ever. Whatever insults, threats, slights, etc., it would NEVER justify going after someone–crossing that line–to publicly smear them, reveal God-knows-what, digging up dirt on them, their family, friends, etc. It seems, to me at least, a built-in forbidden zone that one should never tread or travel to, you’ll be entering an inescapable black hole and taking alot of innocent bodies with you. Again, thanks. Your word of honor is as good as anything I would ever need. And I’m sure the other administrators at this site share your same values, or at lease, I hope they do. Best. HReport

    • Will H. in reply to Rufus F. says:

      fwiw, I believe that Mr Obama would find your posts on Plato to be fascinating.Report

    • Barrett Brown in reply to Rufus F. says:

      I would merely argue that your example is not entirely helpful since I did not actually release the name of the person or any information that could be used to identify the person, so it would be more like, “Hey, guy who has accused me of X, insomuch as that you yourself are guilty of X which I know by virtue of the blog sending me that information, that’s an invalid ad hominem for that and other reasons!” Unfortunately, the idea that I did identify the person by name – an idea which you’ve presented by virtue of having made a comparison to such a situation – has now become the story which will forever be told due it having been repeated already by at least four or five outlets.

      Had I just said, “I know X because The League sends me X,” and not bothered to try to honestly recount the additional details regarding my quick investigation to ensure that the person was not someone whom I thought it might be when The League sent me X – a recounting I did in response to someone’s question/claim that this was League policy and that everyone should be concerned – this would have had a very different outcome, one which did not end with a lot of people already claiming that I outed someone by name, when I obviously did no such thing. And I am noting it here because I would like to ensure that this is not going to be one of the many eternal internet pages that will lead people to believe that.

      Suffice to say that there are plenty of lessons to be learned from all of this.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Barrett Brown says:

        Okay, let the record state that you did not do that. Also, let the record state that I was trying not to make this discussion about you, Barrett. I was also under the impression that this thread is about the general topic and we’re sort of avoiding the specific issue, which is being picked to death elsewhere. My comment here was only intended to say, 1. This is the information I get about the commenters, 2. This is what I think you can reasonably expect me not to do with it, and 3. This is why. I had no intention of “presenting the idea” that you did the same thing with the information you got and, if someone reads my comment that way- THAT READING IS WRONG. In fact, you know, I can just edit that comment to clarify it.

        But, seriously Barrett, I tried to also make this clear- my take on this whole thing is that you fucked up: that in one comment, while angry, you wrote something that was very inappropriate. However, I also think- let the record state- that you’ve basically atoned for it by resigning and that bygones should be bygones. This isn’t the end of the world. Also I think that plenty of us have, while angry, written things in comment threads that were, at the very least, regretable. So, seriously, I ‘aint mad at you. And I get that Robert Stacy McCain has a problem with you and so do other people, but I’d really be amazed if anyone here does at this point.Report

  9. Heidegger says:

    Barrett, I wasn’t referring to your situation–just wanted to know what the general protocol was regarding privacy of commenters and personal info that is supplied to the administrators when an commenters reply to posts. I keep reading that you “breached” a sacrosanct line in the sand and gave out info about one of your antagonists. (someone said you even contacted his work place?) I seriously doubt you would ever do that. I don’t know anything about the particulars, regarding your situation, to c0mment one way or the other. If you could, please send me a link, from your perspective, that explains and gives a chronology of the events that led to this. It’s really too bad this has happened because I find you a very bright, interesting writer with a very lively mind and, most importantly, highly readable.Report

    • Barrett Brown in reply to Heidegger says:

      Everything that happened, including my own explanations with which I am satisfied, are in my last post on the Anonymous press release. Can you please tell me where it was said that I contacted his work place so I can make some perhaps Quixotic effort to ensure that this does not also get mixed into the inevitable difficulties I’m now facing?Report

  10. DensityDuck says:

    I use a fake email address because I want to avoid spam-scrapers. I figure that if anyone wishes to reply to my comment, they can do it right there at the website.

    I use a somewhat-distinctive pseudonym to make it easier to find things I’ve written.

    As far as internet privacy: Given that every packet I send or receive goes through at least one computer not controlled by me, I figure that internet privacy was nonexistent right from the get-go. Maybe the specific person who’s mad at me can’t find out who I am with their own resources, but it’s not as though *nobody* could *ever* match my username to a real-world identity.

    Although I believe that privacy, in general, is an entirely fictional concept; it’s a social convention, not a fundamental right.Report

  11. the innominate one says:

    ironically, the innominate one is my real nameReport