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.”