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Sometimes justice wears a mask: blogging, anonymity and the open society

After the Times exposed the identity of the police blogger "Night Jack" he has been disciplined by the police force. The blog (now deleted) had won the Orwell Price for political writing and often expressed critical views related to the police and the justice system. In a court ruling Mr Justice Eady claimed that blogging was "essentially a public rather than a private activity" and that it was in the public interest to know who originated opinions and arguments. Do we have a right to anonymity on the net? And is it truly in the public interest to know who every blogger is?

The vast majority of bloggers are only too happy to reveal themselves, mostly because they are unknown and have little to say. In more serious blogging it can be helpful for one's credibility to establish a link between one's larger public identity and one's identity as a blogger: it means putting reputation at stake, that arguments can be supported by one's prestige and that credibility can flow from the blog to the public identity. Maintaining a separate blog persona can sometimes be a useful stylistic or social trick, but the goal is usually not anonymity but to signal a separate focus. Real anonymity allows harassment, disinformation and making statements
irresponsibly. Since there is no link between the person and the online
persona there will be no repercussions and no reason to "play nice".

There are relatively few cases where anonymity is truly necessary, but they are important. Certain groups may be subject to reprisal yet have experiences worth communicating and a right to communicate them. Consider people with AIDS or political dissidents (as the case of Iran currently shows, this concern crosses borders). Whistleblowers and critics are necessary for the functioning of an open society. Somebody has to challenge holy cows, whether they be popular views, scientific and religious dogma, powerful interests or social institutions. Without this process inefficiencies, mistakes, corruption and misuse of power will thrive. The fact that much criticism does not have noble motivations and may be misguided does not matter: in a healthy open society there will be selection processes checking criticisms for accuracy.

Some things need to be said, but there is no need for them to be said by a particular person. Often a sufficiently stable pseudonym is enough to ensure a degree of credibility. The readers may not have any evidence beyond the blog that the author truly is a policeman, soldier or scientist, but maintaining a complete false front is cumbersome (especially when interacting with initiated readers). If the credibility of the information strongly hinges on knowing who originated it, then anonymity will detract from it. But much information has power on its own, regardless of who said it. 

Is blogging a public activity? Yes, that is its purpose, to communicate with a large and self-selected group of people. But a public activity does not have to have all aspects public. The privacy of people engaged in it can and often should be respected – there are good reasons to want to know how politicians are using public money privately, but no reason to demand the home addresses of people at Speakers' Corner. Witnessing in court is a public activity, yet the safety and identity of witnesses may be protected.

The public interest to know who originated information does not trump all considerations. Risks of reprisal and the public interest in having whistleblowers and free expression can clearly balance this. A case in point is the legal protection of anonymous sources providing information to journalists that exist in many countries. No doubt the Times would strongly resist legal attempts to find out which policeman supplied them with a juicy opinion.

It is interesting to consider that bloggers to some extent cut out the middle man in this journalistic process: the source communicates directly with the public. However, blogging also cuts out a fact and relevance-checking filter that is supposed to be present in journalism. That filtering is instead left to the readers, individually and collectively. Could it be that journalistic source anonymity should be protected more than blogger identities because the filtered result is on average better for society than the unfiltered blogging? But when considering rights for free speech, the likeliehood of contributing something constructive is irrelevant – even if educated people provide better opinions than uneducated people, that is not a reason to give their speech different levels of legal protection. The journalistic source is protected by the presence of a news organisation while the blogger is on their own: they are actually more vulnerable and hence more in need for protection.

We need journalism more than we need newspapers, and the spread of citizen journalism gives good hope for the open society. Whether it is documenting minor misbehavior of the police or felling spin doctors, it helps keep society liveable. Most of this can and probably should be upfront. But there are good reasons to maintain anonymity for some people speaking truth to power.

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