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On “anonymity”


A familiar, but frustrating, observation was posted by cpinva in the thread below:

one comment: there is no such thing as “anonymity” on the internet. never has been, never will be. if someone really, really, really wants to find out who you are, they can. just as you can never “delete” a photo off the net, you ultimately can’t hide on the net either. your IP address can be found. depending on the skill level of the searcher, it might be found quickly or take a bit of time, but found it will be.

There’s an element of truth to this, but it’s highly misleading. Anonymity is, and always is, a social norm. There is no plausible context in which anonymity exists without social norms that support the respect of it. There is nothing unique or unusual about internet anonymity in this regard. The expression here suggests that any attempt to promote or maintain a norm of respecting anonymity on the internet is pointless, because it’s not capable of being technologically guaranteed. But again: the lesson here wouldn’t be to give up on anonymity on the internet, but to give up on anonymity in any social context in which its valued, for any reason, because of the possibility of breach.

In the real world of the internet, of course, anonymity is alive and well. Millions of people participate in it as a social practice, and a vanishingly small number of them have their anonymity breached. The norm is reasonably well supported most of the time. Norms retain value when they’re generally honored; no norm is universally respected in all cases but that doesn’t vitiate their value. That’s why Leiter’s behavior should be interpreted as a threat to anyone who values this norm, and why it’s important to push back against this kind of behavior. Norms retain their value and power when there are costs for violating them; costs Leiter has so far successfully avoided.

….cpinva notes below that (s)he meant the comment as one of prudence, rather than complacency. Duly noted; glad to hear it.

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  • Thank you.

  • Peter Hovde


  • As a foul mouthed internet blowhard with a day job, I salute this post wholeheartedly.

  • Fullname Username

    So that’s what happened to all the frackers/crackers/hackers. I wondered why they had stopped.

  • Julian

    That observation is vulnerable to my favorite rebuttal:

    “So what?”

    • Vance Maverick

      No, it’s not.

      [ … ]

      That is, lots of people (like cpinva!) make a certain claim in arguments about anonymity. That claim is false. You may not care about those arguments, but if so, the post is not addressed to you.

      • Julian

        Sorry, I wasn’t clear. I meant that cpinva’s observation is vulnerable to “so what?” As in, he doesn’t have a point.

  • Scott Lemieux

    It’s classic glibertarian logic. “Regulatory enforcement can never be entirely independent of power relations, so we should just not have regulations at all.”

    • Yes, instead of advising people to be careful what they say on the internet, even under the shroud of pseudonymity, our two illustrious bloggers would have someone who lost their job due to ratted out internet comments take solace in the fact that norms have been violated! Helpful!

      • Scott Lemieux

        who lost their job due to ratted out internet comments take solace in the fact that norms have been violated

        I’m afraid you’ll have to identify the text from which you derive the “take solace” part of your summary. Good luck!

        • Same text you took your glibertarian comment from! Practice your reading comprehension before you get defensive about being called out on your nonsense chief.

          • Scott Lemieux

            My reading comprehension is just fine, chief. I didn’t just come to the internets yesterday; generally, when people 1)point out the inevitability of some measure of injustice x 2)using facts that are known to roughly 100% of the given audience, the intent is to urge complacency about dealing with injustice x. I’m happy that cpinva is apparently a rare exception to this rule.

            • annoymous

              should have went with “hoss” or “pal”

            • And we circle back around to what exactly you and djw are “urging” here? Frowny faces? Sternly worded blog posts?

              Telling people not to treat every word they write on the internet as if it was going to be read by their boss/friends/family is lot more helpful than what this post proposes.

      • Origami Isopod

        “Yes, instead of advising women to not wear short skirts in public at night, our two illustrious bloggers would have a rape victim take solace in the fact that the onus is on rapists not to rape!”

        Same damn thing.

        • No, there is literally nothing about this situation that is like rape.

          • Origami Isopod

            The situation per se? Correct. Your victim blaming? The same damn thing. Why shouldn’t an anonymous commenter on a website be able to trust that the site admin won’t pass along their email address to a person who might not be delighted with their criticisms? Why shouldn’t same commenter be able to expect that this transfer of information won’t be used to harass them?

            • No, you… insultingly and offensively… are comparing breach of trust on the internet to sexual assault. Tone it down.

              Advising someone that there is no such thing as a secret between three people is not “victim blaming”. Telling someone not to gamble with more than they intend to lose is not “victim blaming”.

              I’m perfectly happy to blame the site admin who breached the trust of his forum members by supplying their email to a 3rd party. However heaping scorn upon him isn’t going to get anybody’s anonymity back. It’s not going to dissuade the next Leiter from seeking the real identities of people who he thinks are his enemies, and the fact of the matter is you don’t need IP addresses and emails to track down most people in a forum.

            • daveNYC

              Um, you’re really wondering why two people on the internet who don’t personally know each other shouldn’t have enough trust in their ‘relationship’ that one of them could trust the other with potentially harmful information?

              People backstab and betray each other all the time in real life. Put them in a situation where the person they screwed can’t punch them in the face and that only gets worse.

              A related comic: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2004/03/19/

  • rea

    Based on what I’ve read of his writings (admittedly, I’m not familiar with the whole corpus of his work), Leiter thinks the credibility of an argument depends on the credentials of the person making it. Thus, he thinks anonymous commentary is improper, because it disguises the credibility of the arguments beinmg made.

    You might think that a guy with some pretension of of expertise in philosophy would know that the credibility of an argument turns on the argument itself, not the credentials of the person making it, but Leiter evidently does not see it that way.

    • Manta

      There is something called expertise.

      • Dave

        Of which he has none. Next question?

      • rea

        Expertise makes for better arguments on the part of those possessing it. It’s not a subtitute for evidence-based argument, though.

        If we’re arguing the meaning of a Supreme Court decision, for example, I don’t get to say, “I’m a lawyer, so you all shut up.” I have to make an argument based on text and context, which will be informed by my expertise, but which will amount to more than me simply invoking my expertise to end debate.

      • Origami Isopod

        There is something called “appeal to authority.”

        • Anna in PDX

          Don’t professors of law have to learn logical fallacies at some point?

  • john

    “Norms retain their value and power when there are costs for violating them; costs Leiter has so far successfully avoided.”

    So what should be done? And, more importantly, what could be done?

    It seems Leiter has engaged in this type of behavior his whole career without much consequence — will this time be any different?

    • Julian

      In no particular order, things that could (or should, as you like) be done:

      1. Mock him for it on blogs, which discomfits him by contaminating the purity of google search results for his name.

      2. Write letters to the UC administration, drawing their attention to this and other episodes.

      3. Spread the news to the academic community to discourage people from working with him, or attending UC he was a draw for them.

      As you may know from being alive and conscious, sometimes widely publicized criticism of a public figure results in adverse professional consequences for that figure. Sometimes not. It’s even theoretically possible that the adverse consequences could change his conduct. Who knows? The world is a strange and marvelous place.

      • djw

        Yes, there’s no magic solution, but 1 and 3 are largely what I have in mind. This practice should be permanently appended to his professional reputation and identity. I don’t endorse 2, as it smacks a bit too much of the sort of think Leiter does to those he deems insolent.

  • brad

    Nicely put. And to piggyback off my response to that comment, I think that the way anonymity is treated by those with problems accepting criticism actually shows the need for it.
    Leiter’s attempts to bully those with less power in their shared context show with simple clarity why they need the chance to speak up without fear of reprisal. I have issues with PC’s pet causes, but in this case making it all public really is worth fighting for. Leiter can do real damage to people’s lives with this petty vendetta, and the odds of him never having acted like this before are approximately zero.

  • Fullname Username

    Just to make the point, this is a TORified IP, coming off of Librte Linux, which has a static endpoint on my end, yours, not so much. If it were running off a WiFi and mobile hotspots were changing, ie, in the city, then I would have various IPs in your logs.

    Perhaps Mr. Leiter is unaware of this.

    • wengler

      And yet if you were using the same device and the same NIC your MAC would be the same.

      • Fullname Username

        Except if I was running in a virtual machine which lets me set the MAC to anything close to what the hardware MAC actually is. Most modern notebooks are capable of running a VM.

      • No real name

        MAC addresses don’t traverse layer 3 networks. And they’re trivially easy to spoof anyway.

    • Warren Terra

      Yes, yes, it is possible to shield your identity if you are so inclined and are either literate with the technology or willing to spend the time to become so. We all understand that, but it isn’t really the topic at hand. The topic at hand is about respecting the pseudonymity of people who have aren’t going to such lengths to protect themselves, and are instead relying on social norms and on promises given to protect their privacy.

      • catclub

        “on promises given” This sounds a lot like the quaint faith in facebook’s privacy policies.

        Yes, one has to be so inclined and literate, and also realize that no actual promises of anonymity have been made, in order to protect ones anonymity. people like protesters in Iran or Egypt learn this very quickly.

    • Still only true insomuch as you never communicate any personal information that is tied to a pseudonym.

  • cpinva

    i think you misunderstood the intent of my post. it wasn’t to suggest that, because, ultimately, there is no such thing as complete anonymity on the net, that, if that is your desire, you shouldn’t bother trying. it was simply to point out an equally ultimate truth: if someone really has it in for you, they can find you.

    take it simply as a warning, and be heedful. fortunately, as DJW notes, the majority of people on the net will respect your desire for anonymity, for whatever reason. but, there’s always the one, and leiter is as good an example as any, of those with malicious intent, who you must be wary of.

    sorry that i wasn’t clear enough.

    • It’s always a useful warning, but in a practical sense, as others have pointed out above, you can be pretty goddamned hard to identify outside a determined attempt by people with warrants if you take a little care. Concern about anonymity is better addressed with mention of useful tools rather than with a throwing up of hands.

    • shah8

      Ex’s stalking women are a classic example of a common type of determined violator of norms. And the response by people that normally are vigilant against norms violation for some individuals tends to be lackadaisical at best for others. Which leaves said women oftentimes very dependent on luck, effort, and paranoia.

      I really think djw missed the boat here. Cpinva was talking about how norms about anonymity must compete with other norms (that you might not agree with, or agree on the prioritization of which). It’s not misleading at all, just a warning of needing to heed necessary cynicism. Hopefully, I didn’t just put words in cpinva’s mouth.

      • cpinva

        just a warning of needing to heed necessary cynicism.


        It’s not that those of us who believe there is no such thing as anonymity on the internet think people should be ratted out it’s that we are advising you not to be an idiot.

        and yes.

        i honestly didn’t intend to cause such confusion. it was simply a caution, one shouldn’t simply assume that protection of anonymity is a given. djw is right, it operates within a social construct, which works the vast majority of the time, because those who are the “keepers of data” are, for the most part, honorable people, and worthy of trust. the leiter case is an example of what happens when that trust is broken. i have an example from my personal life, so i’m acutely aware of the potential consequences, when that happens.

    • Jewish Steel

      It was clear to me that’s what you meant.

      JW Hammer says above:

      Still only true insomuch as you never communicate any personal information that is tied to a pseudonym.

      I have never revealed my real name on the various blogs on which I post, but a little detective work could quite easily reveal my identity IRL. I suspect it is the same for most habitual pseudonymous commenters.

  • It’s not about “norms”, it’s about risks that you as a person are taking if you join a forum with your work email address, post from your work computer during the work day, and then go about trashing your boss or whatever.

    It’s not that those of us who believe there is no such thing as anonymity on the internet think people should be ratted out it’s that we are advising you not to be an idiot.

    I post under my real name simply to remind myself of that fact. Does that mean I censure my language and don’t always speak candidly on every topic? Of course, but I’d also do that if I met you in a bar.

    • Anna in PDX

      This. Although I sometimes get heated on the Internet I do try to remember that just like a stranger meeting me IRL a stranger who meets me on the internet should not get to know too much about me merely because I need to express myself to the point of basically violating my own privacy. If I keep a handle that’s fairly non-anonymous it helps me remember this. I do respect others’ right to be anonymous though, I think it’s one of those personal choices that none of us should make for each other.

      • To be clear, I agree 100% that people should have the ability to post anonymously on the internet. Much like any other kind of “outing”, it should only happen as a personal choice.

    • Bill Murray

      do you also advised women not to wear revealing clothes when going out and for people to walk down a dark street late at night? i mean, I’m sure you don’t think people should be raped or mugged, but it is your duty to advise them not to be an idiot

      • So is “don’t drink and drive” blaming the victim?

        I do in fact advise people not to take stupid risks while simultaneously lamenting living in a world where I have to lock my door at night.

        • Origami Isopod

          A drunk driver is not a victim but a perpetrator.

          A rape victim is a victim.

          The “stupid risk” that all rape victims take is living in a rape culture.

      • Dave

        Maybe you should google something like, say “women safety advice”, and see what people talking to actual women about how actually to keep themselves safe say? Because, funnily enough, not making yourself a target comes up a LOT. What doesn’t come up is the claim that, if you fail to heed the advice, you’re a slut that deserves to be raped. This is probably because the people posting the advice aren’t complete assholes.

        • rea

          What doesn’t come up is the claim that, if you fail to heed the advice, you’re a slut that deserves to be raped.

          No, actually, that comes up all the time.

        • Origami Isopod

          Are you fucking kidding me?

          Most “rape prevention advice” aimed at women presumes we never consider our safety, encourages us to limit where and when we go out, and shames us for sexually expressive fashion and/or drinking.

          You want rape prevention advice that works? Aim it at rapists, most of whom are men.


    • Chet Murthy

      Well, -no-.

      Does that mean I censure my language and don’t always speak candidly on every topic? Of course, but I’d also do that if I met you in a bar.

      First, I -fully- identify with the “the ‘net isn’t anonymous, buddy, so don’t go actin’ like it is — you’ll get screwed” position. Which is why, on subjects that are anywhere near my work, I stay -completely- silent. Because y’know, you start talkin’ about subject X, and sooner or later, your employer’s PR folks start calling asking why you’re posting about Y and Z.

      That said, there’s an old saying in the (tech) biz: “not a word was said, after the first sip”. In short, you go to a bar, sip something alcoholic, and then, well, if something got said, you have plausible deniability.

      You don’t (and can’t) get that on the ‘net.

      [Note well that I’m not claiming that the deniability is ironclad. Just that …. well, you -can- try to claim you didn’t say whatever-it-was, and it’s all down to hearsay. But on the ‘net, y’know, there’s …. a written record.]

      Maybe I’m just echoing what cpinva said. Assume everything you say on the ‘net is printed out for your next employer and your local police chief. Assume it.

      And if you want that not to be the case, then take the necessary countermeasures.

      Yeah, it sucks. Which is why I don’t post at -all- in my area of technical expertise.

  • LeftWingFox

    D;oh, replied over there before noticing this thread.

  • Shakezula

    there is no such thing as “anonymity” on the internet.

    Fxd. Which leaves us where? I think it leaves us at the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you have them do unto you, or mommy will give you a fat ear.

    What I find particularly odd tis the accusation of 3rd party info sharing. I can’t think of any other instance where if I give individual A information about myself (even indirectly), it is acceptable for A to to share it with others. (And I said individual, but if you must raise the issue of sales lists, I can opt out of those).

    Take for example, phone numbers. In the not too distant past, a home phone number was also a home address. At the very least it was the power to annoy the fuck out of someone in the middle of the night and required taking the phone off the hook to get any quiet. If you wanted to make people unhappy with you, you gave out their home phone number without their permission. It was not Done.

    These days I still make the distinction between an office number and a cell number. The former I’ll share with co-workers, the latter, not without the person’s permission. I see sharing of IPs as the same sort of very rude behavior that Herr Leitershosen likes to decry when he isn’t engaging in the sort of very rude behavior he likes to decry.

    It isn’t illegal, it just isn’t Done. And if you Do things that aren’t Done, you can’t complain when people question your judgement and call you names.

    • Michael H Schneider

      I can’t think of any other instance where if I give individual A information about myself (even indirectly), it is acceptable for A to to share it with others.

      uhm, the crucial distinction is between public personas and private personas, or backstage vs on stage information. Goffman did work on this a half century or more ago, see, e.g., Stigma.

      Any resemblance between the character “Michael H Schneider” and any actual Michael H Schneider, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All places and characters herein are fictitious, or used fictitiously. Michael H Schneider is solely responsible for all errors. All rights reserved. All wrongs reserved.

      • catclub

        Isn’t this where the author that wants to slander you says that the
        Michael J Schneider, who shares many of your habits and also plenty of rotten ones ( in the author’s novel)also has an incredibly small penis, so they are not referring to you at all.

        • Michael H Schneider

          I’m not going to show you my penis unless you buy me dinner first. What sort of person do you take me for? p.s. and a real, sit down dinner, not a drive-thru. Sorry, I should really learn to stay on-topic.

          I assume that others have done work on the sociology of identity management since Goffman’s time, but I’m about that much out of date with the literature. In any case, norms are constantly being constructed and re-constructed, and I think djw is quite correct, as a matter of ethnography, based on my own participant observation, about what the norms currently are in academic and related circles now.

      • Shakezula

        I don’t follow. Can you summarize the theory? Also, in your opinion are we dealing with private or public personae here?

        • Michael H Schneider

          I’ve gone and looked at wikipedia, which is much more reliable than my poor memory, and I don’t think I fairly characterized Goffman’s work.

          He spent time with people with ‘spoiled’ identities; that is, people who had characteristics which, if known, would put at risk their ability to live or work. For example, gays, blacks, jews, people with mental disabilities, cripples (rememmber, this is the late 1950s). His theory was that people actively manage their identities, revealing some things in some circles and concealing those attributes in other circles. For example, if you were a gay man at a private party hosted by another gay man, and you recognized someone as your co-worker at IBM, it would be improper to acknowledge or reveal this information because those were incompatable identities.

          Sorry, best I can do, wikipedia and Duck Duck Go are your friends. Erving Goffman, american sociologist.

  • Jim Lynch

    “Norms”? In the United States? Americans permit the war criminals that big lied the nation into unleashing war to walk among us, free as the birds. The SOB’s remain in power. That’s the “norm”. That’s who we are.

    • rea

      Right, Jim. Until Bush ande Cheney are prosecuted for war crimes, we are free to knock down and step on each others’ grandmothers.

    • Advokat

      “Americans permit the war criminals that big lied the nation into unleashing war to walk among us, free as the birds.”

      …but enough about Clinton and Gore’s illegal war in Yugoslavia…

  • Joe

    If one uses the net in a library and so forth, how does an IP address remove anonymity? I use it at home and outside the home & some detective work could connect my posts to a name, but I didn’t have to leave myself open to such things.

    • catclub

      this is one of the ways of taking precautions to preserve anonymity.
      Of course, libraries do often keep records of who signed on when.
      In principle, only releasing such under a warrant. but the case under discussion had blog owners/admins giving out IP addresses.
      Norm and expectations again.

      • Joe

        I didn’t check the exact context so thanks for that.

    • Icarus Wright

      If one uses the net in a library and so forth, how does an IP address remove anonymity?



      Geolocation Information

      Country: United States
      State/Region: Colorado
      City: Englewood
      Latitude: ‘x’
      Longitude: ‘y’
      Area Code: 303
      Postal Code: 80111

      • Joe

        (1) My usage of a blog and certain other things left myself open to a person finding more about me, but to repeat myself, I didn’t have to do this. (2)I don’t live in Colorado.

  • This “problem” is easily solved.

    I suggest that we devise a pledge that all bloggers would sign on to, left and right, that would define Integrity in the Online Environment as involving not outing anonymous or pseudonymous bloggers or commenters.

    Such a project has never been tried before but I am sure it would work, especially if it were to be helmed by a figure everyone would agree was absolutely above ethical reproach.

    I recommend a distinguished figure such as Professor Leiter of the University of Chicago as the ideal point-man for such an effort.

    There are no conceivable downsides.

  • Data Tutashkhia

    Yes, we are protected by this social norm (and thanks for your, albeit implicit, promise to uphold it here), but mostly we are protected by our insignificance.

    • Anna in PDX

      True. The main reason I feel safe on the internet is, who would care what I say?

  • Manta

    An older post on popehat on the topic of outing anonymous people on the internet.

    I don’t agree with Ken, but it’s an interesting take anyhow, by someone that cares a lot about free speech.

    • Origami Isopod

      What don’t you agree with?

    • Manta

      Here is a longer post, where he enters into the details


      • Interesting, he does appear to fit the description Lemiuex has above of a libertarian who thinks that since there is no privacy on the net that “doxxing” (i.e. revealing the RL identity of an pseudonymous poster) is no big deal… which is not a position I thought was really held by anybody. I guess I don’t hang out with enough libertarians these days.

        • Dave

          Interesting, because that post sounds to me like the words of a reasonable person who has thought about these issues from a perspective of reasonableness, as opposed to hysterical asshat self-indulgence. But YMMV, I guess.

          • I dunno seem like accusing others of “hysterical asshat self-indulgence” is pretty self defeating, but as you say, mileage may vary.

            Ken’s standard of not respecting and expectation of privacy on the intertoobs does indeed seem reasonable when applied to racist misogynist sociopaths… but less so when applied to random internet nobody’s who have annoyed someone… and even less so when applied to female gamers who want anonymity to keep from being stalked every second.

  • Anonimity is based on a social norm, yes. It’s called polite behavior.

    For my part, I don’t cyberstalk people in any way, shape, or form until they pose a credible threat to me offline. Like a certain AssProf who decided to toss my name around in a libelous fashion, as well as his source of erroneous information. Him (and her), I went after (and I’m damned good at it, too.)

    There are others, including at least one poster at this blog, who similarly have cyberstalked me. While I’m not comfortable with this, I don’t really care. The weakness is theirs, and karma has a way of turning things around on those who believe they are above karma.

    I think anonimity is a social convenience. cpinva is not far off the mark when she says there is no such thing: there isn’t, at least codified. It’s a social construct, and like other social constructs like the law, anyone can and many will violate it.

  • On the topic of norms: is it okay to sockpuppet, or is it not? IOW: is it okay to use a pseudonym specifically to talk about yourself? Is it okay, in that case, to hint about your real identity; to try to guess whether someone is trying to guess your real identity, and tell them that’s not okay; etc.?

    Or does this not really ever happen? Because I don’t see how it can be “paranoid” to think somebody is a sockpuppet unless sockpuppeting never happens. It’s hardly “paranoid” “conspiracy theorizing” to think evidence leads to a conclusion. It’s equally “paranoid,” on the other hand, to think somebody is fraudulently sockpuppeting. (I’m not totally convinced by this evidence, but it’s clear something strange is going on, and the only reason I’m not convinced is my own “paranoia” about the idea that evidence could be less than obviously evident.) Where does it end?

    Or does this not really ever happen? Is all this “hinting” about identity just cross-cultural misunderstandings, people not entirely fluent in English, people typing fast, typing drunk, typing angry?

    I use a pseudonym in part because I don’t want other people’s freefloating hostility attached to my name. (In part for other reasons, like you if you google my real name you’ll never find me.) Or is that “paranoid” too?

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