UK Court Says No Right To Being An Anonymous Blogger

from the wow dept

While there are certainly many problematic US laws, the fact that our court system recognizes and values the right to anonymous posting as a First Amendment issue is something that's quite wonderful. Tragically, very few other countries view things the same way. The UK has been especially bad when it comes to not protecting any rights to being anonymous, and the latest news is no exception. A UK judge has required the unveiling of an anonymous police blogger, claiming blogging is "essentially a public rather than a private activity," and thus, there is no right to anonymity.

In this particular case, the anonymous blogger was a working police officer, writing about daily experiences, and often taking strong opinions that could potentially get him in trouble. Now, some of us would think this is exactly why his anonymity should be protected, but the judge seemed to interpret it in the opposite way:
Mr Justice Eady said the blog contained opinions on a number of social and political issues relating to the police and the administration of justice.

He added Night Jack had expressed strong opinions on matters of political controversy and had also criticised a number of ministers.

The judge said the blogger risked disciplinary action if his employers found out one of its officers was communicating to the public in such a way....

Rejecting the argument that all the blogger's readers needed to know was that he was a serving police officer, the judge said that it was often useful, in assessing the value of an opinion or argument, to know its source.

"For so long as there is anonymity, it would obviously be difficult to make any such assessment.

"More generally, when making a judgment as to the value of comments made about police affairs by 'insiders', it may sometimes help to know how experienced or senior the commentator is."
This is troubling for any number of circumstances, especially in that it will certainly present quite a chill on people speaking out freely and anonymously on supposed problems within their workplaces. That seems a lot more dangerous and troubling than allowing this guy to speak anonymously, where readers were free to weigh the legitimacy of the information knowing the guy wasn't posting under his real name. Of course, it will come as no surprise that, now that the blogger has been identified, he's been disciplined by the police force. So much for encouraging any sort of public discussion.

Update: Lots of good points in the comments that weren't entirely clear in the original article. The specific details in this case were somewhat different, which changes the story significantly. The blogger in question had actually been identified by a reporter, and had asked for an injunction against that reporter revealing who they were. Under those circumstances, we actually have to agree that there's no right to demand anonymity if you've been outed through other means. There should be a right against the gov't forcing you out, but having individuals figure out who you are is an entirely different matter.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Poster, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 1:37am

    And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free...to blog anonymously.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Martin, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 2:56am

    You missed the point. It wasn't about the right to stay anonymous. The information on who the blogger is was freely available with a bit of work anyway. From what i've read, the blogger wanted to stop the Times from posting an article on him. Therefore the judge correctly judged that since the blogger exposed himself to the public, he's not got the right to claim privacy violation here.
    Whether the article in the Times was neccessary or beneficial is a completely different issue, one that the court does not have to decide.

     

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  3.  
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    Tim, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 4:06am

    As Martin says, you seem to have missed the point on this one.

    The blogger was trying to get an injunction against The Times publishing his name which they found out with a bit of detective work themselves.

    There was no court order making him reveal his identity, he was just refused a court order to prevent others from revealing it that knew it. A completely different kettle of fish.

    We stray on various parts of privacy law, but I don't see a problem here. If he didn't hide his identity well enough for someone to discover who he is, the courts shouldn't protect his anonymity.

     

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  4.  
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    Crosbie Fitch (profile), Jun 17th, 2009 @ 4:27am

    Protection vs Pretence

    If people have deduced someone's identity there should be nothing preventing them from publishing their deduction (assuming it did not necessitate violating anyone's privacy).

    The right to anonymity is not a right to constrain the circulation of knowledge concerning the authorship of one's works, to gag others in order to maintain a pretence that the identity of an unattributed work's author is unknown.

    The right to anonymity is a derivative of the natural right to privacy, that curiosity does not sanction the violation of an individual's privacy in order to ascertain whether they are the author of an otherwise anonymous work.

    Unfortunately, people may mistake the judge denying an individual's attempt to gag others, as the state forcibly violating someone's privacy to satisfy public curiosity (or the individual's employer).

     

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  5.  
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    Simon, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 5:12am

    Agree with previous posters. The BBC article isn't totally clear, but it does say that the Judge refused the blogger's injunction against the Times revealing his name. More information on the Times' website: http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/the_web/article6509677.ece

     

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  6.  
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    Alpha Computer, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 5:51am

    I Feel for the Cop Blogger

    This would have been a good example of protecting the rights of this blogger if the judge did the right thing. The comments would have been great and would have given us, the reader, good insight that otherwise would not have come forth. I know that there is bad stuff out there, but why pick on this guy.

    Yet another story of becareful what you post online.

     

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  7.  
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    Rob R. (profile), Jun 17th, 2009 @ 6:49am

    This is crap. Even if the Times had puzzled out his identity, he has a right to privacy. This is not a good sign at all, because this will be a stepping stone for others that wish to censor things. People that wish to post anonymously should be able to do so - as this site clearly does. I may mock them openly and at times even mock them for posting as "Anonymous Coward", but they have the right to do so. Before the site allowed registrations, many people still posted using the same "Name" all the time. This was really all that was needed. No one should be forced to reveal more.

     

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  8.  
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    Night Jack (profile), Jun 17th, 2009 @ 6:52am

    Re:

    I agree! When anonymous posting is not guaranteed, people will censor themselves for fear of repercussions (as happened in this case). Free speech sometimes ''must'' be anonymous to protect the poster and allow things to be revealed that otherwise would not. This was a severe blow to free speech in the UK.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 7:19am

    OK, forget that this story got most of the important facts wrong, but what happens if someone identified themselves as a police officer and posted that he liked to arrest minorities only? What happens if he posted racist comments, or enjoyed it when he got a chance to beat up on students? Should he enjoy privacy rights then?

    Free speech is tough, it can't just apply to speech you like or agree with.

     

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  10.  
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    braindead (profile), Jun 17th, 2009 @ 7:29am

    "A UK judge has required the unveiling of an anonymous police blogger, claiming blogging is "essentially a public rather than a private activity," and thus, there is no right to anonymity."

    Not that I am agreeing with the Judge but he has a point in what he said, it should certainly not be dismissed so fast.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    JackSombra (profile), Jun 17th, 2009 @ 7:52am

    As others have pointed out, this was not about the right to blog anonymously but rather about the press finding out who is was and allowing them to reveal this information

    As you specifically mentioned the first amendment, lets have a partial recap of it, amongst other things it covers "freedom of speech" and the "freedom of the press", both of which the blogger was trying to prevent the Times from having

    Thus if this case had been in the states and things went according to the constitution, the result would have been the exact same

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 7:53am

    Public speech is public speech. You can't hide just because you are online.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
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    BobinBaltimore (profile), Jun 17th, 2009 @ 7:59am

    Other Issues, Too

    I agree that the way this story is presented above is slanted and incomplete. As others have said, this was about the blogger, who had become known through investigative journalism, trying to block the paper from publishing his name. The judge didn't unmask him...the paper did. The judge protected the right of the Times to publish. Additionally, in terms of the intimation made that somehow the police force sought retribution against him, the judge noted that "the blogger had known he risked disciplinary action if his employers found out one of its officers was communicating to the public in such a way." So, he apparently knew what he was doing would get him in trouble if discovered. he can't really complain much about that.

    Some commentary has said, basically, "but he was doing a public good, providing insight into operations not normally available." Maybe so. In other articles like that in the Times ( http://technology.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/tech_and_web/the_web/article6509677.ece ) there is mention that he provided thinly veiled details of cases on which he worked, some of them sex crimes against kids with perhaps certain requirements for confidentiality, that were readily traced back to the actual prosecutions. This adds a different spin on things and explains why the Times was so interested in him to begin with. Maybe not such the do-gooder after all. I don't know.

    Bottom line is that anyone who wants to be anonymous and remain so needs to be very careful to avoid being traceable. In this case, it wasn't about government unmasking him, it was about another private entity doing research and finding out who he was - presumably - using proper and legal means. And if we're talking freedom of speech, I agree that people should be able to be anonymous. But I also agree that others who discover their identity have the right to publish that information, so long as it is not slanderous, libelous, and doesn't violate other identity protection laws which might apply (in the US, there are lots of laws protecting the identities of victims of sexual assault, identities of minors and such).

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 8:48am

    Good luck with that.

    Of course, England woudn't have a positive substantive viewpoint. The US Federalist Papers were authored Anonymously.

    England is a dinosaur on this issue. We have a whole different world now, where work and personal life blend together.

    Actually, "The judge said the blogger risked disciplinary action if his employers found out one of its officers was communicating to the public in such a way...." Certainly sounds like the over-reaching arm of Big Brother or worklife impending into private live, arguably perhaps even a form of slavery.

     

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  15.  
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    Valkor, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 9:29am

    Re:

    In that case, I'm going to start stapling handbills to trees and power poles again... It sounds safer.

     

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  16.  
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    Bettawrekonize, Jun 19th, 2009 @ 8:38am

    "and often taking strong opinions that could potentially get him in trouble

    that the blogger has been identified, he's been disciplined by the police force."

    People should NOT be disciplined for expressing their opinions. That defeats the whole purpose of having freedom of speech, that we won't be punished for expressing our free speech. The government should not allow this.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Bettawrekonize, Jun 19th, 2009 @ 8:42am

    Re:

    Even if someone is not anonymous, they should not be disciplined for expressing their opinion.

    BobinBaltimore wrote
    "Bottom line is that anyone who wants to be anonymous and remain so needs to be very careful to avoid being traceable."

    This assumes that the government allows for a reliable means of staying anonymous (ie: that they don't ban networks like Tor and such).

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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