Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The myth of anonymity

Toby Philpott has flagged up a case where a court obliged a website to reveal the identities of some anonymous contributors. I have recently put a gentle warning on my sidebar to point out that "anonymous" contributors are not actually anonymous. Of course, I can see their IP address and, in extremis, Internet Service Providers have been known to be made to reveal the identity of IP addressees.

I think most people know that. But it has amazed me recently that some people don't. I have had comments made by people where I can see the name of their employers. For example, someone made a comment on a case which might come to court. Their IP address was registered under an international law firm. Did they really want me to know who they worked for?

Another example involved a political comment. The "anonymous" commenter made the comment from a computer belonging to a district council. I presume they didn't realise I would be able to see this.

When I warned one commenter about me seeing their IP address, they said it was a bit like saying "I know where you live". Well, of course, it isn't. But it does represent a little redressing of the balance. People sometimes come in, all bullish, and make comments thinking that no one will have a clue where they are coming from. If it is pointed out that this isn't the case, it is amazing how this injects a useful element of humility into the debate.

I had a classic example once. Someone swore at me repeatedly in some comments about religion. They repeatedly tore into me. However, they were then big enough to give me a little information about themselves. With this, their IP address details and a bit of googling I was able to find out who they were and also their taste in drink, music and nightclubs. I did not reveal their identity, but it is amazing how their remarks took on some welcome humility when they realised I knew who they were.

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