Magazine article Information Today

Not So Anonymous after All

Magazine article Information Today

Not So Anonymous after All

Article excerpt

Until I began my research for this column, I did not know of the historical popularity of anonymous writers. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, as many as 80% of novels published in Britain between 1750 and 1790 were published anonymously. Many of us learned in our civics classes about the pre-Revolutionary War anonymous posters and leaflets challenging British rule, which played a role in advocating independence for the U.S. The Federalist Papers, a series of writings drafted by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay that promoted the ratification of the Constitution, were originally published under a pseudonym. And I certainly recall a few anonymously or pseudonymously published "steamy" novels from my youth that my mother didn't want me to read.

There is a tension, however, that is associated with anonymity. The right to be anonymous is recognized and protected by the First Amendment. In a 1995 elections case decision, the U.S. Supreme Court described anonymity as a "shield from the tyranny of the majority" and noted that it "exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment." Whistleblowers often need the protection of anonymity to prevent retaliation, and reporters often rely on anonymous sources to document governmental, business, and political failings.

However, anonymity is often an essential part of criminal activities and is frequently part of harassment and bullying. The First Amendment right to be anonymous is restricted by these considerations, as it does not extend to criminal activity and can be limited when anonymous speech affects the rights of others.

The internet has created a completely new order for anonymity. Entire business models such as forums, review sites, and social media are often built on the ability to communicate anonymously, at least on the surface. These sites offer the communications and posts of users whose identities are hidden from their readers behind pseudonyms and usernames. However, the sites will often require users to identify themselves through the process of registering to use their services.

Visible Behind the Glassdoor

Two recent court decisions involving these business models are showing just how limited the right to online anonymity can be. Glassdoor is one such business, which markets itself as one of "fastest growing jobs and recruiting [web]sites." For employers, Glassdoor will post vacancies and open positions and provide a space for companies to "promote their employer brand to candidates researching them and advertise their jobs to ideal candidates." Also central to Glassdoor's business model are "company reviews, CEO approval ratings, salary reports, interview reviews and questions" posted by employees. They are provided by registered users whose identities are known to Glassdoor, but are hidden in the online posts.

Glassdoor found itself subject to a federal court subpoena--not for anything it said or did or even anything its anonymous users said or did, but because of a federal fraud investigation of a company mentioned in several posts. While investigating a government contractor for possible fraud, investigators sought identifying information from eight Glassdoor users who posted about the contractor. The information provided in the posts was critical of the contractor and contained some statements about possible unethical actions. …

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