Once upon a time, the internet was a place of anonymity – you could be fairly confident that no one was tracking your identity and actions. Even as the technology was available to monitor connections and online navigation, legal lines were unclear and the cost of actually implementing tracking wasn’t feasible.
But these days, things are a bit different. The DMCA and other laws have drawn clear lines of legal authority, and create an expectation that law enforcement needs a way to identify and locate the perpetrators of internet crimes. While the prosecution of internet crime was once limited to extreme cases of abuse and fraud, we now have a federal justice department that believes $1.9 million is a fair fine for downloading some unlicensed music. Elsewhere, a judge is ordering Google to reveal the identity of a blogger who hurt a model’s feelings. This will now probably be dragged out into a lengthy and expensive defamation suit that the blogger almost certainly can’t afford to compete in against a model. Even a Ruby programmer calling himself “why the lucky stiff” recently found himself outed by name – for no particular purpose but to spite his attempts at keeping the profile on his personal life low.
From a corporate law perspective, revealing an online identity is a simple matter of cost benefit analysis. Is the content libelous or defamatory? Can the strategic interests of the business be pursued with legal action? As a blogger, does your hosting provider and ISP do what they can to protect your identity?
If you’re concerned about the growing trend toward tracking, surveillance, and “making examples” out of those who download the wrong file or insult the wrong person’s fragile sensibilities, there are some groups out there to help. The Electronic Frontier Foundation helps bloggers, coders, and everyone interested in online anonymity. They are active in lobbying and the press, but what they can accomplish is limited by how much we contribute to the effort.
Something to think about, anyway…
Yes, some recent developments related to net censorship are worrying, particuarly that legal fight over that model-hating blog.
Still, I’ve always thought the best policy was to be upfront about who you were when blogging, regardless of legal considerations. I really can’t understand why someone would try to keep their identity secret unless they were blogging updates while undercover in some massive anti-Mafia sting or something! Trying to hide behind an online identity looks very cowardly, particularly if what you’re writing is petty and vindictive.