Saturday, March 10, 2007

Anonymity and Information

I'm not sure blogs are necessarily the best place to get a pulse on anything. ~ Steve Ballmer
The blogosphere is always upset about something. One of the things upsetting it right now involves a newspaper tracking down an anonymous blogger and outing him. Paul McNamara, one of my favorite tech writers, covers the story in some detail. Basically, it goes something like this.
Some person started a blog blasting a local politician, who, from the limited information in Mr. McNamara's article, is something of an idiot. The blogger, like so many, hid behind a pseudonym. A local newspaper took the tack that anyone publishing articles about a public figure is fair game to be identified, particularly where politics is concerned. This is sensible, because, as we have seen in recent election campaigns, people will come out of the woodwork claiming to be “concerned citizens” who are actually being paid and/or prodded by one of the parties concerned.
Therefore, any time people start criticizing politicians in a public forum, it's reasonable to know who they are and what their motivations might be. For example, the blogger might actually be a rival trying to unseat the politician.
Mr. Anonymous, no brain trust himself, comes into the paper to buy a full-page ad criticizing the same idiot and is caught on a security camera. So the paper published the video on their web site and asked anyone who knew his identity to call them.
There are people in the blogosphere, according to Mr. McNamara, who are having kittens about the whole thing. In particular, the chant is being heard of violating First Amendment rights.
The Founding Fathers fought and sacrificed to create a nation where someone could stand up and say what they wanted without fear of retribution. They did expect there would be reasonable limits on such speech. For example, libelous or slanderous speech is not protected, nor is it okay to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater (as Oliver Wendell Holmes famously opined).
There is also a risk associated with airing the dirty laundry of one's company, as some bloggers have learned. This is to be separated from whistle-blowing, a practice which is not performed in a blog but by contacting the proper authorities. Whistle-blowers are brave people, but they seldom resort to blogging to try to correct the deficiencies they see.
There's nothing wrong with pseudonyms, but when it comes to political criticism in this country, it is wrong. First, to properly judge someone's statements, we need to know if the person is speaking from real knowledge or expertise. Second, we need to know if they have some personal ax to grind. Finally, we need to know if we're reading an impartial analysis or a partisan statement.
So, if Joe Blow wants to say that the Mayor of Montgomery, AL, is doing a great job, it's nice to know if Mr. Blow is an ordinary citizen, a seasoned impartial political observer, or a member of the Committee-to-Re-Elect-Bobby Bright.
The recent nonsense over at Wikipedia should be a lesson to us all about the dangers of Internet anonymity. By now everyone knows about “Essjay” who claimed to be a “tenured professor of religion”, who in fact had no degrees whatsoever. That little discrepancy didn't prevent him from being a significant editor at Wikipedia.
The blogosphere and the Wikipedia have this in common: As a source of information, they both are no more than starting points at best. At worst, they're blind alleys filled with inaccuracies. Therefore, the reader or researcher should exercise proper judgment, and authors should own up when they make purported statements of fact. Information wants to be free, but it also wants to be correct.
Let the websurfer beware.

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