Anonymity and public service
I’m just back from RecentChangesCamp 2008, a conference and networking event for people who work with wiki software and communities. When you get a bunch of smart people together, you get new ideas; this post will be the first of several exploring the ideas I came away with. -Pete
In a democratic society, it seems natural that decision makers should be forthcoming about who they are, so that the society as a whole can draw its own conclusions about their motivations, possible conflicts of interest, and general suitability for decision-making. We see this value reflected in laws about public service; for example, a recent extension of Oregon’s ethics laws (SB 10 of 2007) has attracted a great deal of attention. Public officials — even volunteers — are expected to disclose not only their names, but often their business affiliations and other personal information, to the public whose lives they stand to impact.
In many public forums, though, anonymity is commonplace. Talk radio callers, bloggers and blog commenters, and contributors to projects like Wikipedia are often completely anonymous; or, if they disclose any information about themselves, it often can’t be verified.
But public forums often have a big impact on public opinion, and on public policy. Those in charge of such forums — blog administrators, radio hosts, the Wikimedia Foundation — often staunchly defend their participants’ right to anonymity, both in terms of their individual rights and in terms of the public good. Valuable observations and opinions often come from anonymous contributors, who might be putting their careers or their personal safety at risk if they disclosed their identities. Legislation protecting whistleblowers shows that these values run through our legal system, as well.
So, from the perspective of the public interest, where is the line? Where do we, as a society, have an interest in defending an individual’s ability to stay anonymous, and where should we require disclosure of information? This is important to me as I consider how to structure the Open Lobby project, which will aim to generate policy reforms in a broadly transparent way.
A few thoughts:
- Fact-finding research can benefit from anonymous contributors, and it’s possible to defend against abuse (at least to some degree) with clear policies about sourcing.
- Policy recommendations, however, can easily be gamed by people who misrepresent their identity, in either overt or subtle ways. It can be difficult to detect or counteract this sort of thing.
- Sometimes, a community’s treatment of anonymous contributors can be more effective than official policies. For instance, sometimes simply pointing out and shaming anonymous bloggers who make personal attacks can deflate their efforts.
What do you think? How should blogs, talk radio, Wikipedia, or other public forums best approach anonymity? When and where do individual rights come into play, or is the public good the main factor we should consider? Is it acceptable for a forum to protect anonymity out of self-interest — i.e., to foster the kind of controversy that often attracts an audience?