I’ve posted before about online anonymity, and it might be worth reading this and this if you are new to the issue. Actually, there are far better accounts elsewhere, which a bit of Googling will reveal. In any event, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for blogging and commenting anonymously, and to the extent people use anonymity to engage in meaningful (if controversial) discussions, and to protect privacy and personal safety, anonymity is entirely appropriate.
Anonymity, though, can be abused. Studies of computer mediated communications demonstrate quite convincingly that people who speak from behind pseudonyms tend to be a whole lot nastier than folks who are willing to put their names to their words. Every feminist blogger and reader of feminist blogs knows this by hard experience; many other bloggers probably do as well. Disturbed individuals may spend startling amounts of time and energy trashing others at strangers’ blogs, at their own blogs, and/or in comments threads throught the blogosphere. That can be scary.
There are a number of ways that anonymous bloggers and commenters are vulnerable to having their identities discovered and disclosed. The first is as a consequence of divulging extensive personal information. A blogger who reveals a lot of details about her life makes herself vulnerable to having the dots connected by readers. I figured out who was writing half a dozen anonymous bloggers just by reading their blogs closely over time, not because I care particularly about who they are, but because as an academic,”reading closely”is part of what I do, and Internet anonymity is of scholarly interest to me. If any of these bloggers ever go public with their real space identities, and grant me explicit permission to do so, I will articulate how certain pieces of personal information in combination with Google searches (and ordinary Google searching was my only tool) pointed toward their real space identities, but for now that is all I will say about this.
The second way that anonymity is compromised is technologically. Many people use computers and/or browsers that reveal their ISPs, their locations, their places of employment, and even their full names to every website they visit. This information can, for example, be captured about every person who visits a blog, sometimes even when the person is using a proxy or anonymizing software.
The third way that anonymity can be compromised is because a legal proceeding is initiated. Let me emphasize that I am speaking very generally, and I am not providing a legal opinion, or legal advice. Consider first possibly criminal activities. If a blogger or commenter makes threats against another person, law enforcement officials almost certainly will ascertain the real space identity not only of the person making the threats, but also the identities of the person’s co-bloggers and co-commenters as indicated, and of the bloggers who inadvertently host the comments of the”threatener,”even if the comments at that particular blog are not threatening in nature. To illustrate: If Commenter A makes threats about Commenter B at Blog X, and then leaves nasty but unthreatening personal attacks against Commenter B at Blogs Y and Z, it is highly probable that law enforcement actors will be interested at least at the preliminary level in the real space identities of all of the bloggers involved.
Now consider civil actions. If one person brings a lawsuit against another person based on a”speech tort”(e.g. libel, slander, defamation etc.), even with fairly weak claims they can use the discovery process to ascertain the real space identities of”anonymous”bloggers and commenters. Anyone blogging or commenting anonymously needs to be aware of how vulnerable they are to having their identities disclosed, even if they behave in entirely legal and honorable manners. On the downside, this makes socially desirable forms of anonymous speech (like whistleblowing) very risky. On the positive side, in the event that a pseudonymous blogger or commenter develops what appears to be an unhealthy obsession with someone else, that person has the tools to identify and monitor the offender.