This week, I stepped in the middle of a petty fight between two bloggers on opposite ends of the political spectrum. The first, Richard Silverstein, had put up a post in which he claimed to have come across the real identity of anonymous blogger “Aussie Dave”, on Facebook. My immediate thought, upon seeing the screenshots of the Facebook page, was that it was fake. A blogger, who has been blogging anonymously for nearly ten years, does not make the rookie mistakes of a) putting his address on Facebook and b) linking his real life Facebook page to his anonymous blog. I pointed this out to Silverstein (in fewer words), who claimed that the information was trustworthy and had been emailed to him, and that the blogger had inadvertently connected his blog to his Facebook page. To the latter, I commented, “Oh good” and left it at that.
The next morning I awoke to dozens of tweets and emails (which were, it is worth noting, all from someone at the same New Jersey IP address who clearly doesn’t understand how anonymity [doesn’t] work) attacking me for “supporting” the outing of an anonymous blogger. Reading into it further, I discovered that I’d been right: the whole thing was a setup designed to entrap Silverstein, who fell right for it. Despite that, I continued to be bombarded by slanderous comments attacking me and the organization for which I work.
Now, before I continue to today’s developments, let me point out a few things:
a) I don’t actually know Richard Silverstein. So while EFF has been derided as a “supporter” of his, the only connection is the fact that I am friends with his very public Facebook profile and that I occasionally read his blog. On my own, personal, time.
b) I did not, and do not, support Silverstein (or anyone’s) outing of an anonymous blogger, regardless of personal politics or personal opinion of another person.
c) None of my comments have had anything to do with politics, and I resent being accused of such. Contrary to “Aussie Dave”‘s claims, we have spoken in the past, and, having read his blog, I don’t like the guy, but…
d) Once again, that has no bearing on his right to be anonymous.
So, this brings me to today. On my way out of the house a couple of hours ago, I checked my mobile to see if Twitter was back online after maintenance, and sure enough, it was. And checking my mentions, I learned (from Aussie Dave himself) that Silverstein had “outed” Aussie Dave, this time for real, posting a slew of personal information including a link to his real Facebook profile, which included photographs of his children.
It would appear that Silverstein discovered Aussie Dave’s identity using a very basic WHOIS tool that allows one to see the domain history of a given URL. And while Aussie Dave later used proxies to renew his domain, he initially bought it using his real name and email address. Silverstein then linked that to other personal information that was publicly available online.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I neither support nor approve of this, and I sincerely hope Aussie Dave and his family are not at any real risk for it.
That said, for the benefit of all of the other anonymous bloggers out there, a few things need to be said. First, in respect to EFF’s work, as EFF has unfairly been derided by some bloggers, despite having had nothing whatsoever to do with this. Several bloggers have pointed to EFF’s Anonymity issue page, noting that we work to protect anonymous bloggers. This is true. But read further, and you will note the following:
We’ve challenged many efforts to impede anonymous communication both in the courts or the legislatures. We also previously provided financial support to the developers of Tor an anonymous Internet communications system. By combining legal and policy work with technical tools we hope to maintain the Internet’s ability to serve as a vehicle for free expression.
EFF’s actual work in this area is mostly limited to the above: ensuring anonymity remain a legal option on the Internet and providing or supporting tools to help bloggers and other Internet users achieve that goal.
On a personal level, I believe very much in these principles. And yet, with my single, lazy comment of “oh good” I’ve been deemed–in the eyes of Aussie Dave’s crowd–someone who “cheers on” the outing of bloggers I disagree with, someone who goes against my principles, and all sorts of other absurd things I won’t even dignify with a response.
So, do I believe that Aussie Dave is entitled to those rights just like anyone else? Yes, I do. But, just like anyone else, it is his responsibility to protect his own identity online. If you choose to be anonymous, the law should protect that as your right, but the responsibility is on you as an individual to ensure you take all of the necessary precautions to remain anonymous. I can certainly say that I don’t think what Silverstein did is cool, but for all of the anonymous bloggers out there who might be reading, please note: Everything he did involved publicly available information.
Aussie Dave has asked me to call on Silverstein to take down the personal information, in my professional capacity. This is a grave misunderstanding of what I do. In my personal capacity, I certainly could, but I’m not sure what good it would do at this point. Once an anonymous blogger links his personal information to his blog, he has taken a huge risk. And, however unfortunate, once that connection has been made public, it is on the Internet to stay.
Legally, I’m not sure what paths of recourse Aussie Dave might have (I’m not a lawyer). I offered to suggest a few contacts who might be able to offer advice (as I would for anyone in this situation), but he has not responded.
That’s my final word on the matter. I hope that any anonymous bloggers out there will think hard about the information they’ve posted online and whether they are truly protected from those–governments or individuals–who might wish them harm, and that anyone thinking of starting an anonymous blog consider utilizing the following resources:
- EFF’s advice on blogging safely
- Global Voices’ guide to anonymous blogging with WordPress and Tor
- How to register a domain name anonymously (though I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this resource)