Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anonymous speech is double-edged; what about "gag orders"?

The recent “Skanks” case (Aug. 19 on this blog) demonstrates that speakers and bloggers should not be allowed to “hide” under anonymity if they harm other people, as with defamation or libel.

On the other hand, anonymous speech is viewed as an important part of the First Amendment and is viewed, in a democracy, as a very important safety valve, allowing legitimate whistleblowing (as in the workplace) and holding politicians, professionals and various businesses serving the public accountable. The USA Today article (noted on the Aug. 19 posting) pointed out that recently some physicians have made patients sign “gag order contracts” not to use online rating services, as the doctors maintain that the asymmetry of these sites undermines their ability to deliver medical services to future patients. G Anonymity would seem to be an effective antidote to the gag orders, but without the possibility of forced disclosure doctors would have no way to defend themselves against libel. It’s all too easy to imagine property owners or landlords wanting to impose the same conditions on residents in the future.

I do use my own name in my speech, because it is analytical, social and political: it is driven by issues, not by complaining about specific people or parties, so my speech is more effective if people know who I am. I realize that that creates an “online reputation” and I can imagine how it (because of the asymmetry) can present some practical risks, in a real world of political, social and business hierarchies that are challenged. For example, if I took an interim job for which I was overqualified, a business might, after finding me on search engines, still wonder if I took the job to journal or report on the business (as with the ABC Food Lion case in the 1990s – OK, I named one business here, but that’s a well known case already exposed by others).

I do want to point out that I do not complain about specific business entities online. Were I to do so, that could create many practical problems in getting needed services in the future. So I do not use rating websites for professional services even anonymously. If I have a specific complaint, I go through the proper channels set up for that service industry. I do review consumer items (like films), because these are not services in the same sense; I should add that no one pays me to review or “endorse” films, books or shows.

For me, the real "boon to democracy" is in asymmetric speech about issues themselves (and the ability of individuals to conenct them in novel or innovative ways); it's not in the ability to bitch or complain about specific people.

I took up the subject of “business privacy” on a posting here May 30.

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