The ethics of blog anonymity

I took on the ScienceOnline09 anonymity panel because I thought it might be interesting, but the conversation that has developed has turned this into a much deeper issue than I had anticipated. I’m stepping into a big, brown pile of ethics here, and hopefully Janet won’t make too much fun of me.

Abel over at TerraSig has a number of posts up already, and today DrugMonkey brought up a very interesting question.

The science blogosphere, being a new medium, is slowly developing a set of practical normative ethics (geez, I hope that’s the right term), and that this is a critical time to start to explicitly discussing these ethics.

You see, it turns out that anonymity in blogging brings up a host of other issues related to online culture and its intersection with real life. What moral meaning does anonymity have? What responsibilities may attach themselves to it?

Fist, I think it important to set out that bloggers have no inherent right to anonymity. When I start publishing my thoughts online, it’s too easy for an intelligent reader to figure out who I am, and that facility in and of itself reduces my expectation of continued anonymity. That is, from a practical standpoint, I cannot expect my anonymity to be long-lived, and therefore I should not value it too highly. The same goes for those who comment on blogs—you cannot expect true anonymity. As DrugMonkey pointed out, it’s pretty damned easy for a determined and intelligent person to figure out who you are, especially if that person has access to information not widely available.

Since anonymity is an important part of internet culture, what sort of contract develops between an blogger and his or her commenters? Do the have responsibilities to each other?

The most obvious responsibility, which I will set aside for now, is that someone who is blogging as a scientist or doctor should strive to give accurate information. Good. That’s out of the way.

With regard to privacy, I have a disclaimer on my blog (which my co-authors have not objected to, and that we have tried really hard to adhere to, sometimes imperfectly):

Confidentiality and Privacy

Confidentiality is more important than any other principle in medical writing. I always change significant data about clinical cases, which can include gender, place, temporal relationships, and other potentially identifying data. Cases are often amalgams of different patients’ stories.

Please remember that any information you submit through comments or email are inherently un-secure. If you wouldn’t shout it from the rooftops, don’t send it to me or post it in a comment. That being said, I will never intentionally divulge personal information or contact information.

Type whatever you will, but your email or comment may become the subject of a new post, and that isn’t always a good thing for the commenter.

Additionally, Seed Media Group has its own privacy policy [here].

By stating my intentions, I have entered into an ethical contract with my readers. What are their responsibilities under this contract?

Well, they aren’t explicitly stated. In this relationship, I hold certain powers, including special knowledge (the knowledge of IP addresses, email addresses, etc., although these can be spoofed), and the ability to delete comments, or more sinister, to edit them without telling anyone. I can pull off a very nasty sort of sock puppetry, in which I can put words in your mouth, and those words are still associated with your IP and email address. The reader holds certain powers—the power to contact me inappropriately, to insult me, my readers, or other commenters, to use my blog as a platform for advertising or spreading untrustworthy scientific or medical information. A reader also has the power to hurt me personally or professionally. If they know who I am.

So really, this isn’t much of a contract, it would seem. I hold most of the power, and the reader is just a passive receiver of information.

Except that the ability to comment immediately brings them into the contract. I would argue that a commenter on a science blog has the responsibility to avoid “injuring” the blogger or other readers. Defining injury and its severity is quite tricky, but the issue here, lest I allow you to forget it, is anonymity.

And here we have a jumping-off point for the ethics of anonymity in the blogosphere.

The blogger has a responsibility to disseminate accurate information, and to treat readers with respect, including respecting anonymity if the reader desires it.

A reader has the responsibility to comment in a manner appropriate to the blog’s character and mission, or risk being deleted. They should not use the blog as a platform for their own commercial or other interests, unless the blogger doesn’t mind. They also have the responsibility to avoid outing the blogger should the blogger wish to remain anonymous.

If either party breaks this contract, is it voided? If a commenter gets nasty with me, calling my workplace, posting personal information of mine online, am I relieved of my responsibilities viz. this reader?

If my reader perceives me to have slighted them, violated their privacy, etc., are they free to treat me in kind?

As one of my readers recently wrote, “The internet is a rough place. Buy a helmet.”

Comments

  1. #1 Alfred Squinge
    October 21, 2008

    I’ve been wondering about your session at ScienceOnline09 – when two people turn up to run the session, how will we know it’s you and Abel Pharmboy? It could be two totally different people just pretending to be PalMD and Abel Pharmboy.

  2. #2 PalMD
    October 21, 2008

    Because we’ll be wearing our patented Sb 10^6 baseball shirts? Does nature network have shirts? Huh? Does it?

  3. #3 Alfred Squinge
    October 21, 2008

    Shirts? Nah, the secret handshake works fine.

  4. #4 Alethea
    October 22, 2008

    Well, actually, there were t-shirts, although not for the whole network thing, just for the one event.
    I can’t insert it easily; here’s the logo.

  5. #5 Abel Pharmboy
    October 22, 2008

    when two people turn up to run the session, how will we know it’s you and Abel Pharmboy?

    In the past, Bora has made me put both of my names on my nametag, that controlling bastard. I also suspect that I will look like my nymsake, John Jacob Abel, in about 25 yrs.

    btw, Pal, I apologize for being so busy last night and this morning so as to miss your words of wisdom here. I scheduled a post that just went up that forms what I hope will be a nice Venn diagram with your content here.

  6. #6 Caius of RW Fame
    October 22, 2008

    Pal, I think you’ll know who this is from the story & the handle.

    Anyways, blog anonymity is an interesting subject, especially from the perspective of the author. I think using your real name lends an air of credibility, and defrays the nasty internet tendency to diverge into flame-wars, since, with your real name up, readers feel like they “know” you. It’s harder to flame a real person than it is a handle, and instills, I think, a sentiment of respect. That’s why I’ve always used my real name on my blog.

    But there’s a cross-cutting problem… it has real-world implications. I just lost out on a federal judicial clerkship right out of law school because my personal beliefs were easily Google’able. The judge didn’t fault my views or my writing – in fact, she applauded both, which was a nice compliment! – but for that job, you have to be politically anonymous. Epic fail :-/

    Anyways, random thought & warning to future blog authors.

  7. #7 PalMD
    October 22, 2008

    Argh! Caius! I was so pullin’ for ya’. That totally sux!

  8. #8 Caius of RW Fame
    October 22, 2008

    I appreciate it :). There’s always next year; a lucrative but soul/time-sucking job in corporate law for a year ain’t so bad, though, especially with a metric ass-ton of student debt ;-).

  9. #9 PalMD
    October 22, 2008

    Don’t worry…by the time you’re 60 or so, you won’t think about the debt as much.

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