Pseudonymity on the Internet

For those that need the warning, further down this blog I discuss child abuse.

I’ve been thinking about names and Internet privacy since Jeremy Duns asked the internet:

The answer to me is obvious: yes, they are. My personal unfavourite is the Herald, which bans all pseudonymous commenters: the New Statesman, which is just a complete muddle, is probably the next worse. Facebook is problematic, and Google Plus is a cosmic screwup all of its own. Part of that reason is that most computer systems do not handle names very well: see Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names.

Jeremy Duns has, fairly enough, got valid reasons to detest people who use multiple pseudonyms on the Internet, aka sockpuppets, which the Urban Dictionary defines as:

An account made on an internet message board, by a person who already has an account, for the purpose of posting more-or-less anonymously.

Sockpuppeting is at best silly, at worst viciously disruptive. As a further Urban Dictionary definition notes, the word is also used to describe:

a person who has no original thoughts, opinions, or ideas of his/her own. Instead they regurgitate the “party-line” or talking points of others; usually of their particular political party.

Sock puppets can be seen on FauxNews and on Talk Radio. The GOP will put out its talking points and you can pick out the sock puppets because they will repeat the talking points; usually words for word.

It is perfectly lawful in Scotland to adopt any name you choose, so long as you are not doing so with any unlawful intent. If you are formally changing your name, there are certain specific criteria that must be followed, but if a person decides to refer to themselves from then on as Milk or Pink Dandelion, Scots law – indeed, the law across the UK – says that they can do so, providing they’re not doing so in order to commit or to conceal unlawful actions.

If you argue that using a pseudonym by itself proves you have something to hide, why yes, let me cite you an excellent summary, first posted three years ago as part of Race Fail 09:

Reasons people may prefer pseudonyms or limited personal disclosure on the Internet:

  • Because it is a standard identity- and privacy-protection precaution
  • Because they have experienced online or offline stalking, harassment, or political or domestic violence
  • Because they wish to discuss sexual abuse, sexuality, domestic abuse, assault, politics, health, or mental illness, and do not wish some subset of family, friends, strangers, aquaintances, employers, or potential employers to know about it
  • Because they wish to keep their private lives, activities, and tastes separate from their professional lives, employers, or potential employers
  • Because they fear threats to their employment or the custody of their children
  • Because it’s the custom among their Internet cohort
  • Because it’s no one else’s business

If you argue that you yourself have never seen any reason to use a pseudonym on the Internet, I think that you should consider that you may be playing the Game of Life with a low difficulty setting.

Any website that only permits comments from people using their “real name” is ensuring that a disproportionate number of people from marginalised and endangered groups will not be able to comment there. Such groups include: women, who can be 25 times more likely to be recipients of online harassment; lesbian, gay, and bisexual people; transgendered people; parents and carers at risk or caring for children at risk; people with disabilities; victims of real-world abuse and harassment; anyone in a marginalised group who might be “outed” in some way.

Any website that so discriminates against women, LGBT people, disabled people, survivors of real world abuse, ensuring that their voices are less likely to be heard in the discussions that take place on that site, is curtailing freedom of speech.

So I answered “Yes” to Jeremy Duns’ question, and got the response:

This was a confusing response, because Andrew Sullivan does not “ban pseudonymous commenting” at his website, the Daily Dish, he bans all comments. That’s a perfectly fair decision on the part of any blog owner: comments threads have to be monitored, and if a blog gets too busy, monitoring the comments may turn into a bigger job than writing new content, and then where are you? But if you allow comments, if you decide to preferentially allow comments from able-bodied straight white men and discriminate against comments from other groups, you are curtailing freedom of speech.

If you are an American you may respond “Only the government can curtail freedom of speech!” but that’s a kneejerk response relating to the US Constitution banning any curtailment of freedom of speech on the part of the US government: any blog owner, any newspaper publisher, any social media corporation, any headteacher, has the lawful power to curtail freedom of speech within the remit of their authority: this power may be used reasonably or unreasonably, but it exists.

In most instances, the freedom of the press matters much more than the restriction on commenting. It irritates me that I can’t comment at the Herald or the New Statesman, but, it has to be said, it’s a trivial annoyance: if I want to comment about articles there, I can always blog. In examples like Facebook or GooglePlus, it’s rather more than a trivial annoyance, but simply means generally avoiding those areas of the Internet as far as possible.

We know of instances where super-injunctions were used to prevent British media from publishing information that anyone who cared could find out from other countries via the Internet. The most recent example of power commanding privacy is via Steve Messham, who says that for years – in the 1970s when he went to the police, at the Waterhouse inquiry – he tried to testify that a senior Tory politician had abused him in a hotel room with eight other paedophiles. Newsnight wouldn’t let him say the name on air and the man named says he will sue the BBC for libel if they do (and, presumably, anyone else who names him in public). David Cameron proposes to launch a public inquiry, which will keep the heat off his soon-to-be-former colleage for a while.

Tom Watson used parliamentary privilege to get the following information into the public domain:

“The evidence file used to convict paedophile Peter Righton, if it still exists, contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring. One of its members boasts of its links to a senior aide of a former Prime minister who says he could smuggle indecent images of children from abroad.”

“The leads were not followed up but if the file still exists, I want to ensure that the Metropolitan Police secure the evidence, re-examine it, and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and Number 10.”

That was on 24th October. Ten days later Tom Watson wrote:

Since then though, many more ordinary people have contacted me about suspicions they have had of a wider wrongdoing – in some cases so heinous it made me cry.

And they have named powerful people – some of them household names – who abused children with impunity.

Two former police officers have raised their concerns of cover-ups. Child protection specialists have raised their fears that the network of convicted paedophile Peter Righton, the nexus of the group, was wider than at first thought. Others have identified a former cabinet minister who regularly abused young boys.

Some have raised mysterious early deaths, disappeared children, suspicious fires, intimidation and threats.

Tom Watson’s recommendation to David Cameron is

My advice to you as Prime Minister – and from one father to another – is that you need to order a special police investigation, outside the affected forces, with proper resources, to review all relevant police files and those of the intelligence services. If they have documents suggesting politicians in the Commons and Lords or others in positions of power were involved in child abuse then they should make them available to a new inquiry team.

A man was being named on Twitter as the abuser: Twitter has acted to disappear those tweets. I’ve looked for and found several web sites which name names – accurately? Inaccurately? I don’t know. As Stavvers notes here, “guess the paedo” is really not the important part of this story; what matters is that Newsnight knew who the Tory rapist was but did not dare name him, because the only evidence they had was the word of the rapist’s victim (the only evidence the police had on Jimmy Savile, which was why he went to his grave unprosecuted):

We live in a society where this word is not enough. It’s not valued. We have a legal system which protects perpetrators of rape and abuse by operating on this principle. It silences survivors by telling them their experience is not enough, by pretending that being accused of rape is the worst thing that can happen to a person, that it’s worse than being raped.

This man, whoever he is, has the power and wealth to enforce his pseudonymity on others, and for an unlawful purpose: to conceal his crimes. Yet the law of the land is with him, to an extent that even ensures his victims may not speak publicly about their experiences at his hands or be sued for libel: just as Jimmy Savile may have escaped being named as a rapist when he was alive because – whatever phonehacking journalists may have learned – they were afraid of being sued. Just so the Daily Mail could publish a damaging farrago of lies and nonsense about a woman without access to scary lawyers and assume they would get away with it: as they would never have assumed they could get away with publishing the truth about Jimmy Savile, or about this unknown senior Tory.

The ability to be pseudonymous is a power and privilege that has generally been the exclusive resource of a few: that anyone can decide to be pseudonymous on the Internet, and many do, is something new. That some people misuse this power is nothing new: misuse by some does not make general use wrong.

Following a rather irritating discussion on Twitter with Jeremy Duns, I would like to make the point here:

This is a syllogism.


  1. People from marginalised and endangered groups have a strong need to be pseudonymous on the Internet.
  2. Some websites deny the use of pseudonyms: they require that everyone who comments or is registered there uses their legal name.

Conclusion: those websites are discriminatory against marginalised and endangered groups.

You can dispute with this syllogism in several ways.

  1. You could disprove the first premise by showing that people from marginalised and endangered groups do not need to be pseudonymous on the Internet.
  2. (Hence why I linked to sites that showed evidence that people from those groups do need to be pseudonymous on the Internet.)

  3. You could disprove the second premise, by showing that there are no websites which deny the use of pseudonyms, or that those which do are trivial and unimportant.
  4. (Facebook. GooglePlus. Ahem.)

Going about it the third way, disputing the impact of the conclusion by arguing that it does not matter if some websites are discriminatory because there are lots more that aren’t, is not something that someone who is not part of a marginalised and endangered group can really say.

It would rather be like a straight cisgendered person arguing that it doesn’t matter if same-sex couples can be allowed to get married, since same-sex couples are allowed civil partnership. Or a man arguing that it doesn’t matter if Irish women can’t get abortions in Ireland since women can always travel to London or Liverpool: you don’t get to say what matters when you are not part of the group affected by the discrimination.


Filed under Blog Housekeeping, Children, Disability, Feng Shui Kitten Fixes Stuff, In The Media, LGBT Equality, Women

7 responses to “Pseudonymity on the Internet

  1. Very interesting. I take your points about privilege. But I don’t agree this is curtailing freedom of speech. As you say, people can simply write their views somewhere else – just because they can’t comment pseunonymously on a newspaper’s website doesn’t mean they can’t do so on Twitter or on a blog just like you’re doing here. So their freedom of speech, as far as I can see, isn’t curtailed. Instead, that website has chosen not to publish what they write.

    I also take your point about Andrew Sullivan. I guess what I was trying to say is that I simply don’t see it as a right to publish material on someone else’s site, anonymously or at all. It’s their choice, and if they refuse to let you do it they may be limiting the range of interestign and valuable views that they publish, but they aren’t restricting your freedom of speech. To extrapolate it to a pre-internet age. In 1981, I write to The Times, signing the name ‘Googly Wordsmith’, reviewing a novel. I leave no address. The Times decide that they will not publish the review. Have they restricted my freedom of speech? I don’t think so. Or if they are, it’s a fair restriction – why should they have to publish what any stranger sends them? It’s their newspaper. They’re liable for what they publish legally, and also choose editorially.

    The same surely applies now, except a lot of sites do in fact publish what any stranger sends them. And we’ve got used to that idea. You’ve named newspaper sites mainly, but I said any site. There must be millions of websites that don’t allow pseudonymous comments – by your logic, they’re all guilty of restricting freedom of speech. Unless they don’t allow any comments at all. I think this is looking at it from the reverse angle. Technology has changed, but principles of editing and ownership and indeed freedom of speech still apply. Aren’t you really saying that it would be *preferable* if newspaper websites allowed pseudonymous comments, because if they don’t they miss out on some inetresting voices they wouldn’t otherwise hear, rather than by not doing so they are restricting a basic right, ie freedom of speech?

    I’m ramblign a bit, but I hope that makes sense. I do take the point that while my view is that allowing all voices is almost always extremely counter-productive, it can also be extremely counter-productive to limit the voices one publishes. But I think that’s simply editorial decision-making, made by newspapers and blogs and people who don’t let me post on their Facebook wall. My freedom of speech is still intact.

    • Equally, according to your reasoning, if a hotel decides they do not want to have people from a specific group staying there, they are not curtailing the basic principle of open hospitality providing there are plenty of other hotels in the area which would admit black people, or LGBT people, or Jews?

      why should they have to publish what any stranger sends them? It’s their newspaper. They’re liable for what they publish legally, and also choose editorially.

      Absolutely, they are. But if they decide not to publish your review not because of its content but because it was written by a woman, or a black writer, or an LGBT person, or a Jew, or a Muslim… they are then curtailing freedom of speech on the part of members of those groups.

      Aren’t you really saying that it would be *preferable* if newspaper websites allowed pseudonymous comments, because if they don’t they miss out on some inetresting voices they wouldn’t otherwise hear, rather than by not doing so they are restricting a basic right, ie freedom of speech?

      No, I don’t think you’ve read my blogpost at all if you think I’m “really” saying that. (Or, of course, I have made myself far less clear than I thought I had: I was trying to write about the groups that need pseudonymity in order to be able to comment at all, and the few who are nearly always able to command pseudonymity to suit their desires.)

      The point about not discriminating against people from marginalised and endangered groups is not that people from marginalised and endangered groups have “particularly interesting voices”, but that discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc, is profoundly wrong: discriminating against publishing voices from those groups is against freedom of speech.

  2. Yes, I read it. But I think your terms are wrong. Deciding not to publish something someone writes isn’t restricting their freedom of speech. To take your hotel example, it’s like saying that if someone knocks at *my door* and asks to stay the night, and I don’t know them and say no, I am making them homeless. The purpose of a hotel is expressly that anyone who can pay can stay there. That is not the purpose of a website, newspaper or otherwise. If you refused to allow me to comment here under a fake name, my ability to post on this website is restricted .- not my freedom of speech.

    You seem to be saying that a website that chooses not to publish pseudonymous comments is guilty of discrimination. I don’t think that’s true either, and more than my refusing to put up strangers in my house would be. But even if it were the case, it’s not restricting freedom of speech. If they can’t comment on one site, they can comment on another, or set up their own. Deciding not to publish people’s comments doesn’t restrict their freedom of speech. It simply restricts their freedom to speak in that particular place. That’s not the same thing.

  3. Also, by your logic Andrew Sullivan is being discriminatory and restricting the freedom of speech of two sets of people – all those who wish to comment on his site pseudonymously for the reasons you give, and those who wish to comment on his site under their real names. But he’s not discrimating against either set of people, or restricting their freedom of speech. He is simply choosing not to publish what they have to say himself, They’re still free to say it elsewhere. It’s not the same as a hotel: the point of the hotel business is that you can stay there if you pay for it (and provide proof of your identity, incidentally, for numerous reasons). The purpose of Andrew Sullivan’s website isn’t to host others’ material, aas it is a hotel to host others in their accomodation. The purpose of his site, and millions of others, is to post his own material.

  4. Anya Palmer

    It’s a question of balance. Just yesterday I was looking at floor polishers on Amazon. And as I’ve followed Jeremy’s work on sock-puppeting book reviews, I couldn’t help noticing that most of the reviews for the 5 star machine I was looking at just happen to come from people who’ve only ever written that one, 5 star, review. Funny that. Of course it’s possible that this is just an amazing machine that inspires people to write these one-off rave reviews… but how likely is it? Of course, some of these reviews *may* be genuine – but I can’t trust the system. Sock puppeters are spoiling it for everyone.

    Maybe Amazon could introduce a “verified” system for people who are prepared to submit reviews in their real name, and then provide a filter so that shoppers could choose only to see reviews from those people. I for one would love to be able to apply that filter.

    Appreciate this would not resolve all the tensions outlined above, but it might at least help me choose a floor polisher.

    • The problem is that banning pseudonymity wouldn’t do a thing to prevent sockpuppet reviews: it would merely require people to pick pen-names for their sockpuppets that looked like real names.

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