On Expectations of Privacy and Internet Anonymity
In a recent post by Mr. Thompson entitled “Wikileaks on The Wire,” one commenter said he thought Deadwood would have been a better source to compare. More recently, there has been some controversy over the rules, here and elsewhere, regarding privacy, anonymity and the like on the internet.
My reason for conjoining the two above sentences is that, its quality as dramatic entertainment aside, Deadwood strikes me as a perfect, albeit fictional, example of human community moving from something approaching a state of nature to something just beginning to develop into an ordered society. It differs from the history of the internet in that regard, it seems to me, principally by being fictional.
My earliest days as a regular participant in the blogosphere was as a reader and commenter over five years ago at a blog entitled Left2Right. Its authors were politically liberal or left leaning scholars generally affiliated with the University of Michigan. I not only made myself a tediously regular commenter there, I also struck up a “behind the scenes” email correspondence with several of its authors, as a result of which I have some inside understanding of the circumstances leading to its eventual discontinuation.
Whatever the authors of the blog expected – and it is most likely that they had no clear preconceived expectations, blogging then being such a recent internet phenomenon – one thing is clear: the nature of the discourse and decorum (or lack thereof) was certainly unlike the decorum of the academy. Some commenters were – surprise, surprise! – less interested in thoughtful discussion or even spirited intellectual debate than in the virtual equivalent of shouting their opposition down. Some readers engaged in ad hominem arguments and vicious personal attacks and at least one author had his or her university email account bombarded with such ugly messages. I remember likening the prevailing ethos of the internet to the “wild, wild West” in my email correspondence with one author. (You see? There was a reason for me to mention Deadwood above!)
To their credit, the authors put up with a great deal of incivility and worse until, largely because of incessant attacks by one anonymous uber-troll whose Internet-Fu was strong enough to overcome all of their efforts to ban him, the noise so overwhelmed the signal that they finally threw in the virtual towel. (How’s that for mixed metaphors?)
I relate all of this, in light of recent events here at LoOG, as proglomena to the following questions: (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? That is, is it reasonable to assert that one’s anonymity can be forfeited by sufficiently egregious behavior? Conversely, appearances aside, is the internet still a Hobbesian state of nature?
Now, let me be clear. None of this goes to whether Mr. Brown’s recent conduct was proper or whether Mr. Kain’s resulting decision was proper. I’m less interested in how one judges this case or that than in whether there are prevailing standards of conduct applied in judging such matters. Here, too, I’m not interested in defending or attacking Mr. Kain insofar as the question reduces to whether the owner of a blog can enforce whatever standards he chooses. The answer to that question seems to me to be so obviously and unassailably yes that I don’t consider the question worth further discussion. Rephrased, it seems to me beyond dispute that the owners and operators of a blog can establish and enforce any standards they wish even including no standards at all. They may, of course, still be subject to certain other constraints, e.g., libel law, but that’s about it.
None of us, however, is immune to criticism. I can act like a complete jackass (well, some would question whether it was an act) but I can’t reasonably expect, let alone demand, that I not be criticized for my behavior. My questions are, in essence, a request to discern the blogosphere’s prevailing ethos today, to ask whether it still more closely resembles the state of nature or some incipient, implied social contract has come into effect.
Having asked those questions, my own answers are that the expectation of privacy on the internet is not only not reasonable, it is imprudent bordering on foolhardy. Anything anyone posts anywhere on the internet or in an emailed message bears, to use a bit more legal jargon, an assumption of risk that it will come back and bite its real author and not just that author’s pseudonym in the ass.
That is not, by the way, intended as a threat on my part. As a general rule, I couldn’t care less about trolls, oafish behavior on the internet, etc. Oh sure, there are probably exceptions that would suffice to lead me to attempt whatever retribution I could muster, but its a pretty damned high bar to hurdle and, in any case, that’s not at all my point. What I claim is that any reliance on the forbearance of strangers to preserve one’s anonymity is itself an unreasonable risk.
That being so, expecting one’s anonymity to be preserved notwithstanding one’s own misbehavior is not only imprudent, it strikes me as being incapable of ethical justification. At least, I can’t think of one even close to being sufficiently persuasive.
I post in my own name. As a result, I’m fully aware that I have, among other things, completely given up all hope of ever being elected to any political office. (“Is it not true, Mr. Ridgely, that you have advocated the retail sale of heroin to adults? Haven’t you contended that it was both legally overreaching and ethically unjustifiable for the Civil Rights Act to have been applied to private transactions? Aren’t you of the opinion that government behaving in accordance with the majority of your fellow citizens is no different ethically from the whims of a mob?” Well, as a matter of fact, yes, it is, yes, I have and yes, I am.) Then, too, although some would find this hard to believe in light of the parenthetical expression above, posting with my own name imposes at least some restraint on what I post.
I am aware, of course, that some people are unwilling to bear whatever additional risk to their livelihood or personal lives or such that would result if they used their real names on the internet. For the most part, and especially as long as their internet conduct is civil, I think that such anonymity should be respected.
But there is – and, again, I say this not as any sort of personal threat but as both a generalized moral argument and a statement of empirical fact – a limit. It would be foolish to believe otherwise. And even more foolish to act on such a belief.
Needless to say, reasonable people can reasonably disagree about such matters. If you disagree, even anonymously, feel free to tell me why.