online anonymity – threat or under threat?

Police The St. Petersburg Times (Florida, USA) reports that "a judge has handed Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee a victory in his quest to quell what he says are inflammatory postings to an Internet message board used by law enforcement. Gee now has the authority to serve subpoenas to the Web site,, take depositions and try to identify anonymous posters who might work for the Sheriff’s Office."

This is one of several recent cases (see Applica/Yahoo case or the Apple bloggers) in the US where ISPs and websites have been compelled by the courts to release the names or IP addresses of users. In the UK, the Motley Fool was ordered to hand over the IP address of a user who was then successfully sued for libel.

I’m always torn between whether anonymity is a good or a bad thing. On the one hand, it allows people, for example members of a police force who are troubled by what they see behind closed doors, to anonymously discuss and hopefully resolve the situation. They might not be able to do this without the protection that anonymity affords. Similarly, when I was conducting research of cybersex participants in 1995, I came across quite a few people who reported that the anonymity of their sexual encounters online gave them the ability to have positive sexual experiences. On the other hand, over the years I’ve seen so much bad behaviour by anonymous users of internet chat rooms and message boards that I realise anonymity comes with it’s fair share of problems. So how do we get the balance right or is this a bit more like finding the right screw for the hole – what fits in one instance won’t necessarily fit elsewhere?

(Image of policemen used under creative commons attribution license: photo by EXB-WDC on flickr)


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