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November 24, 2008


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Michael F. Martin

Huh? What about the anonymous and pseudonymous pamphleteers (including Ben Franklin) in the late 18th Century? I agree that the perception of anonymity has adversely affected cultural norms on the Internet, but the Internet is less anonymous than the offline world, and cultural norms are slowly catching up to reflect that. The idea that somehow bad behavior on the Internet arises from a marginalized geek culture seems strained at best. It arises from the same instincts for people to misbehave when they think they can get away with it that are present in every culture, at every time. Besides, if its the marginalized geek culture that accounts for ressentiment than why wasn't the cesspool bigger then?

Encouraging a cultural norm in which identity is used as a bond to support what is said and done on the Internet is a good idea. But banning anonymous speech puts one in the company of authoritarians such as Cotton Mather. I'd rather here what Poor Richard has to say, thanks.

Paul Heald

Michael is absolutely right to suggest that we have long tolerated anonymous pamphleteering. And we should tolerate it still, because it does not cause the harm we see flowing from cyber-cesspools. It seems difficult, at least to me, to argue that the internet is not an unprecedented new forum, the likes of which cannot be compared to pamphlets or the mail. The better analogy is radio or television, both of which can reach mass audiences. And there is clearly no right to broadcast anonymously over those two mass media. Second, I don't want to ban anonymous speech. I would only like to see a rule forcing internet intermediaries to reveal the source of illegal posts. Until a post is proven to be against the law, then full anonymity should be the rule. I don't even want to change existing rules about what constitutes illegal speech. I'm fine with them as they stand. Finally, the ur-geeks who created the internet are not responsible for anyone else's bad behaviour. I merely want to offer the theory (as yet unproven) that their desire for invisibility was at least partially a result of ressentiment, not against women, but against all sorts of authority that they may have, consciously or unconsciously, envied and feared. I'm no better than they . . .

Kimball Corson

The "right" to communicate anonymously vexes most who would otherwise like to impose their own system of controls, usually on grounds of normative outrage, moral indignation or on behalf of the public welfare. In one real sense, we have a power struggle over the degrees of freedom in regard what can be said and done in cyberspace and by whom. Too many involved or not want such control for themselves on whatever grounds. Much of the most offensive material I have seen strikes me more as a reveling in the freedom of anonymity and the would-be controllers incapacity to control and impose meaningful and enforceable restraints. A sort of freedom gone wild if you will. That defiance and resentment may be involved goes more to motive, which is not usually a basis of evaluating free speech . . . assuming it can be controlled.

Uzair Kayani

This conference reminded me of Plato. I think Nietzsche's concept of ressentiment is related to

(i) Thrasymachus's argument (in Plato's Republic, Book I) about justice as a means of control; and

(ii) Glaucon's argument (Republic Book II) about weak people advocating justice only until they become strong.

I wonder if these parts of the Republic were Nietzsche's source.

Also, the Internet cloak of invisibility reminded me of the hypothetical rings of Gyges (also in the Republic, Book II) which made people invisible at will: Glaucon thought that if a just man and unjust man were each given one- that is, if both were invisible- then both would act exactly the same. The analogy here would be perfectly reasonable people in real life who become monsters on the net.

We should have a Republic expert weigh in on the WWW.


The cost of anonymity has to be weighed against the potential benefits. The Web creates an absolute sort of democracy, where a pimpled teenager blogging from Newark starts from the same baseline of credibility as a balding professor from Princeton. Each of them is required with each new statement to create a strong argument and demonstrate credibility anew. Most of the time, this results in the internet being flooded with crap. Sometimes it results in fivethirtyeight.com, the undisputed forecasting champion of the most recent election cycle.

When you say "cyber cesspools," I assume you're referring to 4chan's /b board. On /b, the effect is even more pronounced. Even the pseudonyms are dropped. The result can be, as you note, extreme sexual objectification of women who venture there (and who often post their pictures with a "/b" and a timestamp scrawled in ink on their foreheads or the palms of their hands so the denizens of the board know they are real and that now is the time to start the extreme objectifying). It can also be a woman who is clearly empowering herself, like the "btard" who calls herself GirlVinyl and who has built a small internet empire in Encyclopedia Dramatica. But there are other results, much more interesting than sexual idiocy or the individual entrepreneurial success of one young woman.

It's getting increasingly difficult to speak of anonymity without speaking of Anonymous, as in the increasingly (oxymoronically) famous group that arose from /b and that is now "IRL trolling" Scientology more or less perpetually. Is it good or bad? No clue. But it is fascinating. Political power percolates through the Anonymous system and lashes out at attention-sinking teen girls, at silly religious scams ...

and at ... what else?

All I can say, is I'd like to know the answer to that question. I think we are seeing the very first glimmer of technology's ability to mediate common will. Extreme democracy. It's scary, as any sane person who has even casually observed /b must admit, but it's promising too. I'm not sure the prudent thing would be to derail the experiment by abolishing anonymity.

Why are ballots anonymous?

Sherman H. McCoy

As one of those "ur-geeks" that you derisively refer to, I take offense at your post. It reeks with a sort of anti-intellectualism that I've never seen so clearly expressed until now: the ressentiment of "mainstream" academics toward the technologically-aware.

First off, you got the facts wrong: Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had nothing to do with the primary development of the groundbreaking electronic communication tools. Sure, their companies packaged some of the more mature ones into nice pretty programs for the masses, but the real innovations occurred long before. Take a look at IRC and Usenet- both anonymous and both used extensively years before the first Internet browser was made. And even that famous Mosaic browser came from individual-driven Geekland (CERN and NCSA), not from the big computer companies; in fact, the whole idea of a browser caught Microsoft completely off-guard and forced Bill Gates into a (now famous) post-hoc reorientation of his company.

Do you know what 4Chan is, Mr. Heald? If not, and if you haven't taken some time to poke around there, then I'd say that you simply don't know enough about what you are talking about.

These tools were created by a singular focus on software engineering. They were made because they solved specific communication problems and their creators had an inkling that they would be immensely useful. They certainly weren't made to facilitate deviant or illegal behavior, as you seem to suggest. But why is it that you make that assumption? What in your own psyche drives you to view "ur-geeks" in this way? I'm sure you can respect an architect that is driven toward implementing his vision in brick-and-mortar, or even a Ph.D. candidate working strenuously on a dissertation, and I don't think you would ascribe the same level of default moral depravity to either of those types of people.

I'll tell you why these communication tools are anonymous and can be abused: it's because their creators never checked in with authority while developing them. Like works of art, they were created with drive and determination and focus, and with the confidence that their immense usefulness would make any abuse seem to be no more than a "hiccup".

Indeed, we have plenty of harassment, abuse, even stalking, in the off-line world. Just look at the number of restraining orders approved by courts everyday! Is it any surprise that some people would try to do similar things on the Internet?

And have you ever considered the fact that the "ur-geeks" have developed a fairly sophisticated and effective procedure for dealing with this sort of bad behavior when it rears its head? Most message boards, for instance, are moderated; when a post is made that crosses the line, the "ban hammer" falls fast and hard. Even the cesspool of 4Chan is constantly monitored 24/7, and potentially illegal material meets its end in a matter of minutes.

That's the role of the "admin" in these communication tools. That role and the process involved have been established routinely for decades among "ur-geek" communication tools that it is shocking to find it unmentioned in your post. You seem to assume that the "ur-geeks" could not possibly have confronted the very problems that you bring up. They have, and you should know it.


This is a very interesting article, but it rests on a fallacy. The problem is not that the Internet is anonymous, for it most assuredly is not. The real issue is that the people who can find out who it actually was is very limited. In North America, that list includes law enforcement and the courts, and that's about it... well, not really. The admins at the ISP used by the person wielding the poison pen can find out... but there are many penalties for them if they share the knowledge and power they have with anyone other than the approved list of parties who is allowed to look at that.

In other parts of the world, the answer is the same... but it is even more difficult to find out why and whether law enforcement and the courts have been peering into one's online footprints than it is here... or even who in particular in a position of power has been doing so.

There are two ways to do this. One (to be blunt) is to have teh skillz, as the kiddies like to say. This can be a simple matter of backtracking and cross-referencing the inevitable tracks they leave behind... though one has to know how to look for them. It is slow and labourious, and it is hard to get good help from software (though it's not possible without it).

The other is to get law enforcement interested in what's happening, so they can do so on your behalf. This is usually faster and easier, because they can force compliance from the person's Internet access provider.

This, of course, glosses over the use and abuse of tools such as botnets exploiting other's poorly administered machines as a cut-out to anonymise one's posting, but this was not a design feature of the Internet, but is instead a case of a poorly designed but widely distributed system allowing exploitation by people with teh skillz... and even then there are documented examples of people (in other words, good programmers wearing white hats) successfully reaching through those systems to open a dialogue with the person controlling them.

However, the idea that the Internet is anonymous and that it was designed that way on purpose is completely not true. The real question is not "is it possible for me to find out who you are?" but really "do I have the power to find out who you are?"

For most people, the answer is no.


Nor do we see a right to use any other mass media anonymously. Can you go to your local radio or television station and demand to broadcast your most craven thougts anonymously? What's different about the internet?

Scarcity for starters.
Bandwidth on the public air waves is a limited and precious resource that must be carefully managed in order to be useful for anyone. That makes these media very different from the internet, so different that I think your comparison here is less than helpful. A better comparison would be to newspapers. Anyone can publish a newspaper. There is no requirement to publicly register newspapers. If I want to, I can start printing up my opinions at home and offering them to passersby for free, relatively anonymously. That media is much more similar to the internet.

There is no right to anonymous speech on the internet; it is just that real world identities are not closely bound to communications on the internet for a variety of reasons. This is not so different from the physical world. Many women have been harassed in public while walking down the street by people whistling at them, honking at them, making lewd suggestions or even just leering at them. These harassers are free to engage in such behavior because their physical presence is relatively anonymous. Why then did you write a post focusing on the online version of this problem rather than the street harassment version? Is it because maligning internet geeks is more socially acceptable than maligning street harassers? Why do you not write about the right to harass women anonymously in the street? Surely such a right exists no less than a right to communicate anonymously over the internet, right?

I merely want to offer the theory (as yet unproven) that their desire for invisibility was at least partially a result of ressentiment, not against women, but against all sorts of authority that they may have, consciously or unconsciously, envied and feared.

Do you know of any adult human being who has not consciously or unconsciously envied or feared some authority figure? I don't. So I don't think it makes any sense to talk about how features of the internet's architecture can be traced back to this particular cultural milieu. I mean, if those features resulted from the fact that the internet's architects were human beings expressing universal human sentiments, then, um, what explanatory power does one harness by talking about their specific cultural circumstances in this regard?

In some sense, it is silly to talk about anonymity on the internet. Almost all internet connections are tied directly to one party who pays a monthly bill. There is no anonymity for those who would threaten the President on the internet for example. So the real question is why don't we see prosecutions and civil actions resulting from these illegal acts. I think the answer boils down to economics. We don't see prosecutions and civil actions for millions of stupid evil comments made in bars everyday because the legal system provides too costly a route to redressing the underlying conflict. Prosecutors don't care about the internet comments promising to rape select individuals because the cost of prosecuting those cases is too great relative to their numbers. This isn't a problem with the internet per se: it is a problem with the relative expense of employing our justice system.

TW Andrews

The analogy here would be perfectly reasonable people in real life who become monsters on the net.

Yes. See John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/)

Paul Heald

I like Turbulence’s description of ressentiment. He captures my idea fairly well. I should make clear, once again, that I don’t want different speech rules for the internet. If whistling and making lewd comments from my perch at the construction site is legal in the real world, then it should be legal on the net. I would not make merely offensive speech illegal just because of the medium of comnunication. Let’s just apply the same rules of defamation, actionable threat, etc. The problem with the internet is the ability to communicate illegally in an astoundingly widespread manner (which, sorry Turbulence, you just won’t be as successful with your homemade newspaper) in an anonymous manner. How’s this for a solution . . . imagine that Sally posts the following on www.dontdatethisguy.com . . . “Fred Terwilliger Jaworsky claims to be a doctor at Mt. Sinai hospital. He is not; he’s just trying to get you girls into bed with a lie. Here’s a picture of him taken with my cell phone.” If Fred Terwilliger Jaworsky goes to court (or to the web site operator) and shows his picture and a certified copy of a valid employment contract with Mt. Sinai hospital, he should be able to obtain the identity of Sally in order to sue her for defamation. Because of the present architecture of the internet, this can only be done in a small minority of cases.

And a question for Jack, if tracing can be done so readily, then why have the plaintiffs in the Autoadmit case only been able to identify a handful of the anonymous posters? If you’re right, then we just had a long conference for nothing! Of course, that wouldn’t be the first time . . .

Finally, to Mr. McCoy (not anonymous!). As the very proud father of a computer geek, I would be even prouder to father an ur-geek (which simply means a foundational geek, one that begat influential geek progeny). I have never heard a programmer use the word “geek” in anything other than an affectionate manner, but I certainly apologize if the word has highly negative connotations for you. I really did not choose the word to offend. One thing you are right about is that having a moderator solves all sorts of problems. They are not required, however, and therefore virtually all of the illegal activity takes places in the many unmoderated fora. You are also right about levels of ressentiment against the techn-savvy, but I think Turbulence’s broad description of the phenomenon is correct, and you yourself put the finger on what I’m talking about when you say, “I'll tell you why these communication tools are anonymous and can be abused: it's because their creators never checked in with authority while developing them.” It’s purely an anti-authoritarian impulse that I’m pointing to, not a clever conspiracy on the part of programmers to oppress women. Since you don’t really address the anonymity question I raised directly, I guess I’d like to know what you think of the remedy I suggest above against Sally. Presently, those wronged in this way have had little success finding their malefactors . . .


I'm not sure I agree regarding how widespread comments on the internet are. In my experience, the vast majority of internet comments are read by a very small number of people, rarely more than a few dozen or a few hundred. This doesn't strike me as "astoundingly widespread", especially since the internet is full of garbage so people reading internet comments are already predisposed to dismiss claims found in those comments. I mean, a thousand people might read a lewd comment written on a stadium's bathroom's wall, but that doesn't matter much because people don't find statements written in such places to be credible. I don't see most of the internet as more credible than said walls.

Paul, I don't understand your Sally scenario. Why can't the Doctor file a defamation suit against Jane Doe and, as part of that suit, file motions requesting the court to determine her identity? I don't see any technical or legal problem stopping this approach. The site is likely to agree in order to avoid a lengthy court battle (after all, it doesn't care about the Doctor or Sally). If it doesn't, the site owner can be cited for contempt should they refuse to provide information on Sally. If they claim that they lack the ability to provide such information, the plaintiff can always bring in their own internet experts to testify that it is extremely unusual for web sites to be designed such that all identifying information is scrubbed, but even if that were true, there are steps the site can take today to make Sally revisit the site and any such revisiting can easily be used to determine her IP address which would thus satisfy the court's demands.

Again, the problems here are neither technical nor legal. The real problem I see is that the judge would laugh you out of court and rebuke counsel for wasting the court's time because one idiot writing obvious lies about you on the internet is...trivially unimportant. Proving that you are a doctor is easy: they have badges and offices with framed diplomas, etc. Any civil action that takes up court time is going to cost thousands of dollars (judges don't work for free, court time is valuable) and it seems ridiculous to blow thousands of dollars on such trivial matters. If the Internet had a radically different architecture such that personal identifying information was always available, this fundamental problem would still remain: you'd still have to go to court to make Sally take down her comment and doing so would still cost a ridiculous sum compared to the harm suffered in this case.

Sherman H. McCoy

Paul, regarding your Sally scenario: Sally ought to be hauled to court for not knowing how to post untrue libelous statements on the Internet! Guilty of web ineptitude!

Sally should have made her post at an Internet Cafe with free Wi-Fi, using TOR, and then she would be untraceable.

I do agree with you in your limited scenario. The doctor ought to be able to go to court and the web service provider(s) should respond with any information at their disposal concerning Sally's identity.

But if Sally were tech-savvy enough to know how to make her post the right away, she could avoid detection. No amount of legal action or service provider disclosures could reveal her real-world identity. She could be truly anonymous.

So suppose Sally had "teh skills". What would you want done then, Paul?

There's only one real solution: Outlaw free anonymous internet access! It'll be the end of coffeehouse Wi-Fi. Demand that if someone is going to open their internet access point to others, then they must obtain positive identification from the user: perhaps a credit card; or maybe a drivers' license.

Either you accept this rather draconian solution, or you accept the fact that in the internet age some communication is going to be truly anonymous.

Would you accept my proposed solution if the issue were much more serious than a dating vendetta, perhaps something like the posting of credible terrorist threats?

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