L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

07 March 2007 Blog Home : March 2007 : Permalink

Asymmetrical Anonymity

Jill at Feministe and Makijthise draw attention to an article in the WaPo about how the internet has allowed celebrity gossip to spread to cover ordinary people. Well OK that isn't quite what it is saying but that is the basic fact. The article reports that there are message boards where, for example, anonymous (male) law students write comments about their fellow (female) students and generally speaking act like a bunch of misogynist drunks in a bar. Worse these comments are propagated throughout the web thanks to the power of google and they include the real names of the ladies being commented on. At first sight this doesn't sound too bad and indeed Ann Althouse essentially says that the ladies mentioned should stop whining. As far as the actual words written I think this is, regretably, true. I don't see any hope that sexist, racist etc. comments will stop being made by all males short of the heat death of the universe. And to be honest it may be better to know that some of your fellow students are lowlife pondscum than not.

Unfortunately the problem is that, unlike words spoken in a bar, words written on a site indexed by google are visible to everyone around the world and they remain visible for years. For example, until recently it was possible to find mentions of me from my time in Japan (15 years ago, before much of the Internet), I was going to link to one but the only ones I can find now are rather boring one liners. The article mentions a number of potential bad consequences for this, such as lawfirms not hiring the ladies mentioned because they get the impression that they are sluts or for the ladies concerned to be stalked by a bunch of perverts who think they welcome such attentions.

This is a problem and it is compoinded by the fact that there is an asymmetry in the relationship - the subjects are not anonymous but the people making the comments are. As far as Jarret Cohen, the lowlife scum who runs the site mentioned by the WaPo, is concerned this is a feature:

Cohen said he no longer keeps identifying information on users because he does not want to encourage lawsuits and drive traffic away. Asked why posters could not use their real names, he said, "People would not have as much fun, frankly, if they had to worry about employers pulling up information on them."

This is not a feature it is a bug. There is a place for anonymity on the Internet but it isn't in the public discussion of other people. By allowing unmoderated internet comments by anonymous posters about named people Jaret Cohen is actually providing an extremely one sided defintion of "fun" becuase the subjects of the post do indeed "ha[ve] to worry about employers pulling up information on them." This asymmetry is in fact extremely worrying because it means that the subjects of these comment threads have no way to seek recourse for comemnts made about them or to any damage that miught acrue as a result.

It seems to me that by far the best way to demonstrate this to Mr Cohen and his partner (possibly not just in a business but in a gay lover sense too*) Mr Ciolli would be for some of the ladies affected to start seeding the blogosphere with articles about them. It would be interesting to see how the loving couple of Jaret Cohen and Anthony Ciolli like having their dirty fudgepacking underwear hung out in public. I would suggest that if this strategy is followed the bloggers use the Private Eye technique of pre-emptively defending the subject from the rumour: "We are sure that it is untrue that Jaret Cohen and Anthony Ciolli's torrid affair has ended after Mr Cohen was diagnosed with AIDS and that they were most certainly not seen arguing with a crack dealer in a notorious Pennsylvania neighbourhood"

*They have not denied being gay lovers so it could be true. I'm using the gay sex thing as an example of a way to turn the tables on Messrs Cohen and Ciolli. There is nothing bad about being gay and I have no idea of their sexual orientation but a quick look at the site they run indicates that many of its members would have a problem with Cohen and Ciolli engaging in public displays of homosexual affection or staring in gay porn movies.

PS I think this is related to the Digg reputation question I blogged about earlier.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin