May 11, 2005 | By Annalee Newitz

Keep On Anonymizing

Response to EFF's white paper on how to blog anonymously has been overwhelming. While there have been plenty of positive reactions, there are also a few basic criticisms we'd like to respond to. They boil down to two questions: (1) why didn't you mention more/better ways to be anonymous? and (2) why is EFF encouraging people to be anonymous when the organization stands for free speech?

The first question is easy to answer: the paper isn't comprehensive, and we want to update and expand it over time with tips and tricks for staying anonymous online. Here are two examples:

  • Fantomaster points out at FantomNews that it's important to remember that search engines like Google may choose to ignore a robots.txt file, thus making your blog easily searchable. There are many tools and tricks for making your blog less searchable ? Fantomaster lists some, and there are always more.
  • Matt Mullenweg (a developer of WordPress) has a nifty tool called Pingomatic which can be used for a very specific type of blogging. If you want to get a piece of news to get out quickly to a lot of news venues at once, but don't want anyone to trace the leak back to you, Pingomatic can help. The program will send out notice of your blog entry to several blog search engines like Feedster and Technorati. Once those sites list your entry ? which is usually within a few minutes ? you can take it down. Scott Rafer calls this "unstoppable speech" because the news gets out rapidly and its source can evaporate within half an hour. This protects the speaker while also getting the news out to people for whom it's relevant.

Can you think of other ways to anonymize blogs? Please let us know.

Now to question #2 -- the charge that publishing anonymously discredits the author and makes free speech meaningless.

One reader emailed to say that asking people to publish under pseudonyms turns blogs into "fantasy writing" and examples of "bad faith." We disagree. There are countless reasons why bloggers and online writers may wish to publish the truth under a pseudonym or simply anonymously. These include people who fear reprisals from family, friends, or colleagues for what they are saying ? a common example might be a gay teenager who wants to talk about her experiences without worrying that her family will kick her out of the house or her friends shun her.

Others who have legitimate reasons for blogging anonymously include people trying to unionize their workforce without getting fired for it, as well as victims of domestic violence who want a safe space to talk about their experiences without fear. In these cases, blogging anonymously couldn't be farther from "fantasy writing" or "bad faith." Indeed, it may be the only way to get the truth out without forcing people to face terrible consequences.

We're encouraged to see that the privacy-aware Canadian government is showing concern about these issues. It recently funded an extensive study of the importance of anonymity in civil society. Thanks to a $4 million grant, University of Ottawa law professor Ian Kerr will head up an ambitious project called, "On The Identity Trail: Understanding the Importance and Impact of Anonymity and Authentication in a Networked Society."

Some readers have asked how it's possible to trust an information source that's anonymous. It's a matter of attending to context.

Many writers choose to use a pseudonym online. Let's say you're reading a story by "TankGrrl" about women's rights, and you want to be sure she's a credible source. Ask a few questions. What else has TankGrrl said about women's rights? Who links to TankGrrl and recommends her writing? This kind of information may be more useful for evaluating her credibility than knowing her "offline" identity.

TankGrrl can even protect the integrity of her pseudonym by using a PGP key to "sign" her documents. This unique key authenticates that TankGrrl really did write the comments in question. Now you can decide whether to trust TankGrrl in much the same way you would the (non-anonymous) Jane Knickerson ? by making an informed decision based on what else she's written and what other trusted sources say about her.

But what if a source is truly anonymous, and there's no way to link his posts to previous ones or find out what other people think about him? In that case, treat the anonymous source's information like any piece of data from an unknown person. Take it with a grain of salt; consult other sources.

But most blogs fall under the purview of opinion writing, and as such their merits will be obvious (or non-obvious) based purely on the strength of the argument rather than the identity of the speaker. Some of the most persuasive political writing in US history was published pseudonymously. The Federalist Papers, which argued for the formation of a federal government in the 1780s, were published under the name "Publius."

Remember that there are often good reasons why somebody is choosing to publish information anonymously. It may be harder to trust an anonymous source, but that doesn't mean he or she has nothing important to say.

Update: You may also be interested in Ethan Zuckerman's terrific technical companion to our paper, "A Technical Guide to Anonymous Blogging - a Very Early Draft."


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