You Don't Have a Right to Anonymity
A British court has ruled that the Times of London is free to unmask an anonymous British blogger, just ten days after the National Review caused and uproar by outing a left-wing blogger named Publius. This is a good thing.
When the National Review's Ed Whelan revealed Publius, who writes for Obsidian Wings, to be a professor of law at the South Texas College of Law named John F. Blevins earlier this month, the palpable online outrage forced Whelan to apologize. Now the case of "The Author of a Blog v. Times Newspapers Limited," which was decided this morning by a British judge in favor of a newspaper seeking to publish the identity of a crimeblogger in the UK, has bloggers worried about the future of anonymity online. But nobody ought to have a right or privilege to publish whatever they please without the consequences of their ideas redounding to them.
The British case—which, given the vagaries of British law surrounding the press, could never happen here—centers around Richard Horton, a detective in Lancashire whose blog Night Jack was, as his attorney Dan Tench describes it to Gawker, "an on-the-ground, thoughtful reflection about criminal justice policy." Night Jack received about 3,000 visitors per day, and won the prestigious Orwell Prize last year, the first in which blogs were eligible. As Night Jack's readership and prominence grew, the Times of London decided to find out who was behind it. By tracing out Night Jack's online tendrils, through relatives' Facebook pages and other publicly available means, they determined that Horton was the author. When Horton learned that the Times was on to him, he pulled the plug on Night Jack and sought an injunction to keep the paper from publishing his identity, which a judge granted temporarily. The ruling this morning lifted it, and the Times published Horton's name and photo. Horton has been reprimanded by his police department for discussing cases publicly, but is keeping his job and working on a novel.
"There is clearly a moral case that some people should be able to join the public debate and retain their anonymity," Tench told Gawker. "And I think this will have a chilling effect. Blogs like this can only exist anonymously, and I imagine that anyone who wanted to set one up is thinking about this case."
As well they should. But the notion that anonymous publishers have a right, in perpetuity, to keep their identities a secret—or that people who learn their identities are honor-bound not to reveal them—is nonsense. In both Blevins' case and Horton's, the motive behind their anonymity involved the inconvenience to their personal lives that would be entailed if they were revealed as the authors of their own ideas. Horton risked the ire of his employers, not to mention the victims and their relatives involved in the cases he discussed. And Blevins wrote that he didn't want his left-wing advocacy to interfere with his private law practice, his law-school classroom, or his relationships with conservative family members. There's nothing noble in proclaiming the value of ideas that you don't have the courage to advocate to your own family. More power to Horton and Blevins for finding a way to write what they wanted to write without suffering the inconvenient consequences. But the cushiness of the arrangements they've made in no way obligate the rest of us not to topple them if we think there's a good reason. Whelan believed that Blevins was an ideological "hitman" for the left. The Times clearly thought there was public interest in who was behind Night Jack. Maybe their reasons weren't pure—Whelan's certainly wasn't—but Horton and Blevins should have thought about, and come to terms with, the likelihood that their online adventures would end in the revelation of their identities before they began.
"One of the odd things about this case," Tench told us, "is that a newspaper that commonly relies on anonymous sources was deprecating the use of anonymous material." Indeed, anonymity is a crucial component of good reporting and a pillar of online culture. And that's great! When we promise to protect a source's identity, we keep that promise. But the Times made no promises to Horton, nor Whelan to Blevins. And the outing of anonymous sources is not in and of itself an objectionable act. It was a good thing when Scooter Libby and Karl Rove were outed as a sources about Valerie Plame, and when the CIA operatives were revealed to be editing the agency's Wikipedia page. People ought to be held accountable for the things they do and say, for good or for ill.
There's nothing inherently wrong with blogging anonymously (as say, The Cajun Boy), though some motivations are more cowardly than others. And much good can and has come from people who are free to write the truth without bearing the consequences. But the decision to do so carries with it certain exceedingly obvious risks, and when the jig is up, it's best for anonybloggers to endure the scrutiny with dignity rather than complain that people who had no obligation or interest in preserving their anonymity have behaved as such.