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What does the exposure of Reddit troll’s name mean for anonymity online?

12:56pm | 19 October 2012 | by Michael Skinner, English

Internet users everywhere benefit from the right to remain anonymous online. Often taken for granted, anonymity is usually discussed in the context of whether particular services let users register screen names of their choice, or require their real names; while Twitter handles can be anonymous, Facebook’s are not. For some users, anonymity is crucial, allowing a citizen's name to remain unknown so they can freely express their opinions without fear of retribution from powerful institutions like governments.

But what happens when an anonymous poster's name is outed, not by a government or by the service, but rather by a journalist? What, if any, are the anonymous user's legal protections? Do their rights change if their online activities raise moral questions?

These issues came to a head last week when anonymous blogger and Reddit contributor Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez, was publicly identified by Gawker journalist Adrian Chen, a practice known as doxing. Violentacrez drew the attention of Chen due to his role as a moderator and contributor on Reddit’s online message boards, specifically his connection to the “subreddit” message board "Creepshots." The forum housed pictures of women, sometimes young women, usually photographed without their knowledge, and users typically posted comments that sexually objectified them. Access does not condone the posting of unlawful or non-consenting material that violates legitimate expectations of privacy, especially involving underage subjects.

Violentacrez ran several message boards like this, containing legal, yet unsavory, sources of pornography. However, he was also instrumental in helping other moderators seek out and eliminate illegal content, accepting a responsibility site administrators chose not to take on -- according to Reddit lead programmer Chris Slowe, "I didn’t want it to be my job."

Because of the nature of Violentacrez’s online activity, journalist Chen decided to seek out the user’s true identity. Once he discovered his name, Michael Brutsch, Chen confronted Brutsch and publicly exposed his identity, setting off a sequence of events causing Brutsch to lose his job.

The outing of a prominent Reddit contributor frustrated the site’s efforts to cloak users in anonymity. Structured so that all members are anonymous, operating under pseudonyms, Reddit fiercely values its commitment to keeping it that way. That isn’t to say the site lacks rules or enforcement: Reddit members were already taking a role in policing the forum, and in some cases publicly identifying those who posted on "Creepshots" as a way to stifle these types of posts. In the aftermath of Brutsch’s outing, many members started banning Gawker links.

The attempt at censoring the entire Gawker media network prompted Reddit CEO Yishan Wong to pen a letter reaffirming the site’s commitment to free speech and calling the Gawker ban “ultimately ineffective” at stopping the doxing, or posting of personal information (“dox” in internet speak), about Reddit users. Wong wrote, “We stand for freedom of speech. We will uphold existing rules against posting dox on Reddit. But the reality is those rules end at our platform, and we will respect journalism as a form of speech that we don't ban. We believe further change can come only from example-setting.”

In the end, the impromptu ban of Gawker links does hurt Reddit's reputation. By censoring the free speech of an entire site over posts some users don't agree with, Reddit loses the moral high ground. Their commitment to protecting their users’ identity cannot come at the expense of their commitment to free speech.

This case, where a journalist outs an anonymous poster for a story, illuminates the new context of a very old problem -- whether to protect anonymous, dissenting (even disgusting) speakers. From the Federalist Papers, to town gossips, to Arab Spring tweeters, these voices have always rattled the public. The journalist Chen was likely within his rights. Looking to the law, Brutsch won’t get much help from a defamation claim in the U.S. Whether the plaintiff -- in this case Brutsch -- is a public or private figure has a great bearing on his rights to protect his identity. Unfortunately for Brutsch, he is likely a public speaker, raising the legal bar to him collecting any damages, and the truth of the Gawker story is almost a complete defense for Chen. Brutsch may claim the media violated his rights through “public disclosure of private facts,” a cousin of defamation. However, there will be plenty who argue his real name is newsworthy, or a matter of “legitimate public concern,” sinking his “public disclosure” claim.

This question gets to the heart of anonymity online. Is Violentacrez or any other law-abiding online speaker’s name a newsworthy fact? US law uses three factors to test this:

1) the social value of the information revealed;
2) the extent of intrusion into their life; and
3) whether the victim sought notoriety.

If you establish an identity, known and verified by an entire community, and do not break any laws, or even terms of service, who’s to say your “real name” is a legitimate public concern? Does society need any other way to refer to you, given your openness to respond through your pseudonym? Of course, the term pseudonym assumes there is one “real” name, and all others are simply monikers. What many hackers, entertainers, immigrants, and writers prove is that one person can morally and productively operate with more than one identity, or name, in life. So, what social value does Violentacrez’s “real name” have, especially given the journalist’s clear intrusion into Brutsch’s life, causing him to (predictably) lose his job?

Again, Access does not condone the posting of unlawful or non-consenting material that violates legitimate expectations of privacy, especially involving underage subjects. But criticizing Violentacrez and his lewd online activity is an easy bandwagon to up on. For many, his exposure is justified as ridding the web of one more “creep.” This position assumes that individuals do not have the right to privacy if they are participating in activities that the majority doesn’t agree with and that people behave a lot better when they have their real names down. But what if the user in question hadn’t been a “creep?" What if instead the user was an activist criticising the government or protesting for political change? We can look to other countries to see how lack of anonymity can stifle democratic participation. The message is clear: get rid of anonymity online and people will fall in line. The method is increasingly simple: with so much personal information swirling around cyberspace, those who speak out become prime targets, with an endless stream of their data used as ammunition.

Free speech is not always popular speech. It is often about angering and challenging the establishment and shaking up the status quo. The political dissidents, the activists, and the whistleblowers of the world rely on a level of anonymity to continue to do that very important work. For these reasons, Access has in the past joined other groups calling for strong protection of anonymity online.

Citizens cannot speak truth to power if they cannot secure some level of safety. Speaking in the public sphere should not automatically mean that your entire online life and personal data are subject to scrutiny. If this becomes the norm, we can expect fewer people to speak out, in fear that their data might be used against them, and the chilling effects won’t stop at Reddit’s doors.

Access Policy Counsel Peter Micek contributed to this post.