Anonymity has troubled journalism since its earliest days. From the beginning of “the news”, reporters have had reason to conceal their identities. In 18th century England, journalists critical of government wrote under pseudonyms to avoid being identified and charged with seditious libel. In Zimbabwe, where press freedoms have been severely curtailed by Robert Mugabe, reporters who don’t want to write from exile write anonymously. But the rise of the Internet presents new forms of anonymity for citizen journalists, and with it, new problems.
Editor, Journalism Ethics
Blogger anonymity and pseudonymity
A running discourse among citizen journalists pertains to the ethics and etiquette of anonymous blogging. While pseudonyms are still widespread, the world’s most popular and renowned blogs are accompanied by author profile pages. Some j-bloggers even blog about the importance of blogging under one’s own identity.
Many citizen journalists rely on transparency as a self-checking (and peer-checking) mechanism to hold themselves responsible for their statements. Bloggers hyperlink to their source pages when they make contentious claims or refer to academic/scientific studies, so dubious readers can access and critique the blogger’s statements based on the original documentation. Anonymous writers who use their blogs for libel, slander, or hate-speech are criticized and often reviled in reputable circles of the blogosphere.
At the same time, there is a great deal of respect and tolerance in the blogosphere for anonymity/pseudonymity among certain groups of people whose confidentiality is considered justifiable by the citizen journalism community. Those include political dissidents, corporate whistleblowers, victims and potential targets of hate crimes, and domestic violence victims. Complaints directed at these individuals are much more limited, and readers tend to judge the content, credibility, and value of the blogs without raising a red flag over the blogger’s identity.
Hyper-anonymity and its abuses: Data havens
Data havens are computers or networks that compile data from anonymous contributors. In other words, data havens (sometimes called anonymizers) make computer users anonymous and untraceable and totally free to post anything they desire. That means that dissidents in Saudi Arabia and China can post complaints against their respective governments without being caught, but also that pedophiles can post their musings and seek out child pornography undetected and uninhibited.
A great deal of information has been accrued on various data havens, to the extent that they have become potentially problematic for citizen journalists seeking venues to write sensitive stories. If there is no transparency of authorship, how can the stories be trusted?
Anonymizer and The Freenet Project are two leading data havens, allowing anonymity of name, location, computer, and web-use for all their users, worldwide. Anonymizer had two advantages over its competition. First, it was created a decade ago, before web anonymity was recognized for its enormous importance. Second, it has been sponsored by the United States government as a means for political dissidents in non-democratic nations to expose human rights violations and government wrongdoing. Freenet, created and run (though the site is decentralized) by Edinburgh-based Ian Clarke, has rapidly gained popularity among free-speech advocates, because it extends freedom of expression beyond even western democratic standards and laws.
Several ethical problems arise, however, with its use. First, many citizen or professional journalists in democratic nations who strive towards trustworthy reporting struggle with Freenet’s inherent anonymity – anonymity is unaccountability. Along similar lines, Freenet as a resource provides a great deal of information, but no sources. It is often difficult justifying the use of totally inaccessible sources to readers seeking credibility and transparency.
Freenet is an enticing tool for net-savvy Internet journalists. Its mission coincides with journalists’ desire for a free press, which is often hampered by government limits and restrictions (e.g. publication bans on certain elements of Canadian trials). By transcending the law using anonymity, Freenet’s developers feel that they are facilitating and protecting “one of the most important rights any individual might have” – a lofty goal by most journalists’ standards. Furthermore, Freenet compiles potentially valuable stores of information that likely could be found nowhere else on the web. If its users develop a code – written or unwritten – for acceptable submissions to the data haven, Freenet could be one of the democratic world’s greatest developments and a huge step towards improving rights and liberties globally.
Freenet could also pose dangers to the news industry at large. As indicated in the blogging section, non-journalists have increasing power as information providers. Freenet gives unlimited voice to any obscene, dangerous, or libelous information that any unscrupulous person posts. More concretely, Freenet’s anonymity allows for vast and unchecked copyright infringements, as plagiarists cannot be tracked. The newest version of the software, Freenet 0.7, also has a peer-to-peer function for added privacy. With this system, users can limit their online conversations to only people they know and trust. This ensures that users at risk of government sanctions cannot be spied on, but it also means no one will take responsibility if a peer-to-peer group is created specifically to plot terrorist attacks or pedophilic meetings.
Peter Sommer, digital evidence expert at the London School of Economics, defines Freenet as a “lawless” arena, where no one can be held accountable for anything written.
“Ian [Clarke] is placing a powerful tool in the hands of other people. He’s like an armaments manufacturer. Guns can be used for all sorts of good purposes but you know perfectly well that they are used to oppress and kill,” said Sommer in a 2005 interview.
This assessment may be overly harsh, as guns are used solely to kill, whereas Freenet aims to empower individuals and bolster democratic principles. But the point is valid, if overstated.
In its FAQ section, Freenet addresses the potential ill uses of the service as follows: “While most people wish that child pornography and terrorism did not exist, humanity should not be deprived of their freedom to communicate just because of how a very small number of people might use that freedom.”
If those voices overpower the voices promoting valuable information dissemination, the laudable goals of Freenet will be compromised.