If you can’t defend yourself, you shouldn’t be allowed to speak

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Blogger Grog’s Gamut‘s legal name and position in the public service were today published by James Massola writing in The Australian. Media editor Geoff Elliott wrote:

IF you are a public servant and blogging and tweeting, sometimes airing a partisan political line, do you deserve anonymity? No.

… if you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant, it is the public’s right to know who you are. It is the media’s duty to report it.

Note the get-out-of-free card in that: “if you are influencing the public debate, particularly as a public servant… it is the media’s duty to report it.” That is, I note, “particularly”, but not “only”, as a public servant. If you are “influencing the public debate”, an action not otherwise defined by Elliott, The Australian is apparently reserving the right to publish your legal name.

I am not entirely sure that Elliott meant my reading, which is that The Australian believes it is ethical and in the public interest not only to out pseudonymous public servants, but probably pseudonymous anybodies, but given the impact of outing, I think the more alarmist reading is sensible: that is, The Australian will out public servants who are writing about political matters (perhaps broadly interpreted) and will at least seriously consider it in other cases.

Institutional power accrues to people who are willing to open most, or increasingly all, facets of their lives to media and public scutiny: their words present and past, their name, their face, their body, their clothes, their family. Who can’t do that? Well, most of us. I doubt even many of the most powerful relish it, but the less powerful cannot withstand it.

But, let’s take it from the top, shall we? As coffeeandink, who was the victim of repeated outing attempts (not by journalists), writes:

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, acquaintances, 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

Nobody’s business, unless The Australian thinks you are successfully influencing public debate that is. Can’t let the less powerful do that, can we?

As pointed out in Tim Dunlop’s comments, journalists are generally supportive of at least some right to identify pseudonymous writers.

Annabel Crabb of the ABC (from three tweets, here, here and here):

I don’t think anonymity should be a right. Disclosure of identity would be a rebuttable presumption in my ideal world… Rebuttable presumption – ie, you should ID yourself unless there is a good reason for not doing so… @TudorGrrrl I totally think there is an argument for anonymity in some cases. I just think anonymity should be reserved for extreme cases.”

Because of course explaining your “extreme case” somewhere where journalists can find it and in sufficient detail that they agree with it is never going to in and of itself identify you sufficiently to put you in danger.

Ben Packham of the Herald Sun (from two tweets here and here):

If you set yourself up as a critic whose opinions are worth listening to, you owe it to readers to say who you are. It’s about disclosure… Identity disclosure also disclosing who you are NOT. ie. not a member of the executive, senior official, someone with an axe to grind etc.

I think that something that is not often recognised in these discussions is the advantages that many people who are able to write using their real name have. Packham is partly right: identifying yourself as being or not being someone with an axe to grind, or party-affiliated, or an infamous scoundrel or a beloved Australian living treasure may well give your words more power or get your argument taken more seriously or at least read more widely. It is not unreasonable to be cautious about the stance of a pseudonymous writer, or any writer who conceals related facts about themselves, but in fact this disadvantages writers using pseudonyms, including those who are not intending to deceive their readers about their interests. The bias is applied already.

There are many ways that the less powerful are silenced, and conflating having something to hide or keep private with being not worth listening to is one of them, and insisting on identity disclosure is another. Not all pseudonymous writers are using pseudonyms to ethical ends, this is abundantly clear to anyone who has ever been on the Internet. But insisting that only those who name themselves and state their interest to everyone who lives in the country can speak is far worse.

Elsewhere: eGov AU has a roundup of posts.

Another round of “real names will solve everything”, Blizzard edition

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Via everyone everywhere, Blizzard’s (developer of World of Warcraft and the Starcraft and Diablo franchises) game discussion forums are the latest online forum to come up with the bright idea to make everything all better by requiring people to use their legal names.

Here’s their forum announcement:

Recently, we introduced our new Real ID feature – http://www.battle.net/realid/ , a new way to stay connected with your friends on the new Battle.net. Today, we wanted to give you a heads up about our plans for Real ID on our official forums, discuss the design philosophy behind the changes we’re making, and give you a first look at some of the new features we’re adding to the forums to help improve the quality of conversations and make the forums an even more enjoyable place for players to visit.

The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it… the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before.

Links abound:

  • Blake: Blizzard Wants The World To Know Your Name: This is an important issue, because names carry markers of gender, ethnicity and real-world relationships that may be irrelevant to someone’s game play, but open up the possibility of harassment. It also makes it easier for harassers to follow people beyond the internet, making it a matter of personal safety. I find Blizzard’s decision unfortunate in every possible way.
  • everstar: WoW Fail: That means every post you make will have the name linked with your account published. On a public forum. Where everyone can see it. If you want to ask a question in their Customer Service forum, if you want to post a Bug Report, if you want to talk to other people in your realm, the name associated with your account will be displayed. And it’s supposed to be your real name. (via hoydenabouttown on Twitter)
  • Lodur (semi-supportive), Real ID on Blizzard forums, the good and the bad (via James in the linkspam): Some are concerned for their safety. They fear stalkers and real life harassment and fallout from the forums following them into real life. As a person who has worked in internet security for a long time, I can tell you the chances of this are pretty slim.
  • Miss Medicina, And I Didn’t Even Catch Her Name… : Being a WoW gamer is not exactly a mark of prestige in my field. It would not be a hobby that worked in my favor, but in fact, more than likely the opposite… The people who work at Blizzard don’t have to worry about their future employers knowing how much time they spent on the WoW forums.
  • Apple: Real ID, RP, and why only one person gets to have mine and RealID Forums (via James)
  • Chastity, Seriously Not Okay (via James): It is a common misconception that trolling is caused by anonymity. It is not. It is caused by people being assholes. Frequently, it is caused by people being racist asssholes or misogynist assholes or various other sorts of assholes who like to target people of a particular type.

See also wot Skud said.