Should Pseudonyms be Protected?
Posted by Aaron Massey on 22 Oct 2014.
Last week, Kathleen Hale wrote a piece for the Guardian that’s become quite controversial. In her article, Hale describes her reaction to a negative review of her book on Goodreads, which included some behavior that most people, myself included, consider quite questionable. Here’s how one blogger felt about it:
When Kathleen Hale stalked, monitored, and then personally harassed by phone and in person a reviewer who disliked her book, she had crossed what should be an obvious line of acceptable behavior. Hale repeatedly sought engagement and demanded attention from a person who did not consent to that contact, and moreover sought through every possible means to unmask a person’s pseudonym because she wanted to, and she thought she had the right to do so.
Hale ended up driving to the reviewer’s house and peering into her car while it sat in her driveway. That’s not ok, for several reasons, but I’m not going to attempt to address most of the things Hale claims to do in her article.1 I do not consider myself a member of this community, I’d never heard of Hale before reading her article in the Guardian, and I’m more interested in privacy than determining who’s “right” or “wrong” in this scenario. Besides, that’s been done before, by quite a few people. I do, however, want address that last part of the quoted paragraph above: Should pseudonyms be protected? I’d like to do this using Hale’s article about Blythe Harris, the pseudonymous reviewer of her book, as a hypothetical example.
Let’s start with some basics. Writing anonymously and writing pseudonymously are two different things. An anonymous writer has an unknown name, which essentially means that two separate articles, posts, or reviews written anonymously cannot be assumed to be written by the same individual. A pseudonymous writer has chosen to advertise their work under an assumed, fake name. This allows multiple articles written by the same individual to be recognized as having the same author.
The use of pseudonyms is not new. Mark Twain, for example, is a pseudonym for Samuel Clemens. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King both used pseudonyms to see if their work could be accepted without the power of their names behind it. Pseudonyms are also used to protect privacy. People use pseudonyms to avoid a stalkers or abusers. People use pseudonyms to avoid outing themselves as homosexuals. People use pseudonyms to separate their work life from their personal life. Simple seeking to avoid any possible harassment from the Internet is another completely valid reason to use a pseudonym. In short, the choice of a pseudonym or handle is an extremely complicated choice about identity, privacy, and control. It is not, on it’s own, unethical or illegitimate at all.
The conflict between pseudonyms and accountability in online activities is also not new. Back when Google Plus was actually a thing, they wanted to enforce a “real names” policy. Ostensibly, it was to improve accountability on their social network, but it also had the side benefit of improving the value of each user from an advertising perspective. There are many reasons to believe that policies of this nature are more harmful than they are helpful. I don’t think they should be illegal, but if I were running a site like Goodreads, I wouldn’t have a “real names” policy.
So if we accept that people want to use pseudonyms, often for legitimate reasons, what level of protection should we give them given legitimate concerns about accountability? It’s worth considering two cases of doxing, which is the publication of personally identifiable information about an individual. First, should the fact that someone is not using their real name be protected? Second, should the publication of personally identifiable information, such as a person’s real name, home address, or workplace, be protected? I would argue that what Hale did, when limited only to the question of pseudonymity, goes beyond the first question but not quite into the second. For example, we don’t necessarily know Harris’s real name. In general, we should consider at least three levels of protection: practical, legal, and ethical.
In my opinion, the best practical protection available to someone using a pseudonym is their own decisions to limit the amount of information available about them. Yes, this inevitably limits a person’s ability to participate in a community, but tradeoffs are inevitable. That is the price of maintaining your pseudonym, practically speaking. The more you communicate about your fake persona, the more likely it is that someone will notice a contradiction in your story. If you’re posting pictures taken either from your real life or someone else’s, the more you post the more likely it is someone will notice.
One of the more interesting approaches to this topic has been to claim that there is some legal protection to using a pseudonym. Here’s Jane at Dear Author:
We here at Dear Author have always supported anonymity and pseudonymity. We have allowed people to use pennames and alias in the comments even when it meant they would be hurling insults at us, even when they engaged in sock puppetry (by changing their alias but posting from the same IP address). We do this because we believe in providing a safe place to express your opinion. We don’t always carry out this philosophy perfectly. We’ve made mistakes (and will continue to do so because we’re human and imperfect).
Most of the reviewers at DA use a pseudonym as do many authors in the romance community. Some people use their full legal name and some do not. There are many reasons for using a pseudonym and most of them are valid and as Justice John Paul Stevens noted, it’s a protected right.
Jane is right, but she also misses the point. Legal protection exists for people who want to use pseudonyms, but it essentially boils down to whether and how the government can compel disclosure of an anonymous or pseudonymous individual’s real identity. The example provided in Jane’s post is defamation and the rules a court must follow before it can compel an individual to identify themselves. Non-government websites, like Goodreads or The Guardian, are not required to protect pseudonyms. Perhaps Dear Author chooses to support pseudonymity, but they are under no obligation to do so.
There are no legally binding protections for pseudonymity in Blythe Harris’s case because Hale is (thankfully) not the government. Hale is just another individual. In the U.S., that means she also has free speech rights, and she could use them to posit her theory as to who Blythe Harris is in real life. Obviously, free speech is not completely unregulated. The prohibition against yelling fire in a crowded theater being an example of regulated speech. But the basic point is there’s little protection for an individual using a pseudonym on the Internet from other individuals who want to out them.
That’s not to say that there are zero relevant laws on the books. Someone might be able to bring a cyberstalking case against someone else outing their pseudonym, but taking advantage of them in cases like this would be challenging. The individual behind the pseudonym would probably have to prove to the court that he or she was actually behind the pseudonym, which would confirm at a minimum that it was a pseudonym. That may not be ideal.
Finally, let’s consider whether outing a pseudonym is ethical. In the abstract, we can consider two extreme cases: (1) a pseudonymous philanthropist, who consistently gives away huge amounts of money to various organizations and (2) a pseudonymous critic, who constantly moans about every wrong decision made by various organizations. The tools and methods needed to reveal the real-life person behind these two pseudonyms are essentially the same, which means that if there is an ethical difference in the way these scenarios are handled it will have nothing to do with the tools and techniques.2
Eliminating the tools and methods leaves the motives of the individual doing the unmasking. An individual could have either benevolent or nefarious motives in both cases. Someone may wish to ‘out’ the philanthropist simply for the sake of outing them, and I would claim that is an unethical motive. However, someone may also wish to thank the person that funded the organization that changed their life. It may not be what the philanthropist wanted, but I don’t think that’s inherently unethical. For the critic, it is easier to construct an unethical motive: someone may want to ensure the critic gets as much as they gave. Of course, they may also wish to ensure that the critic isn’t biased in a particular way, like being employed by a competitor. In this light, I think the answer must be the classic “it depends.” There are some scenarios where revealing a pseudonymous individual is ethical and some where it is not.
Since Hale’s article contains a lot more than just her detailed unmasking that Blythe Harris is a pseudonym, I won’t comment on whether or not I thought the unmasking portion of her article was unethical. I don’t believe you can separate them. This is why definitions of cyberstalking are so hard to construct descriptively. Each situation must be viewed separately and holistically.
Instead, I would like to consider two hypothetical scenarios. First, let’s consider a scenario where Hale simply learns that Blythe Harris is a pseudonym and then creates a website that lists Blythe and other pseudonymous book reviewers for what they are: people using pseudonyms. I don’t consider this to be unethical. It’s perhaps a bit confrontational, but it could be a useful one. Even in the simplest case, it may be valuable to someone attempting to determine whether to read a book to know more about the reviewer. This is why Amazon has badges on their product recommendation service. Perhaps more importantly, the use of a pseudonym is an intentional deception, whether justifiable or not. Simply pointing out that there’s some deception involved in a book review, does not strike me as unethical.
Now let’s consider the second scenario. What if Hale were to create a program that automatically commented on every review Harris wrote on Goodreads to say that Harris was a pseudonym? This is moving closer to unethical. I can’t say that it is definitively unethical, but I also can’t say definitively that it’s ethical behavior. This might be the line for me, and any interpretation would depend on the context and the community involved. For Goodreads, I suspect that this would be considered unethical by most participants in the community.
Much of the discussion about Hale’s article has been nothing more than hashing out differing, unsubstantiated accounts of what happened. Of these, many are almost incoherent, believing some of Hale’s claims but not others. For example, Hale claims that Harris ridiculed her and abused her on Twitter. Hale also claims that she visited Harris’s house and looked at a sweatshirt in her car. Apparently, some critical of Hale don’t believe the first claim, but are more than happy to believe the second. Neither are substantiated in the article, nor are they likely to ever be “proven” well enough for me to believe them. If I had to state an opinion on the article, I would simply point out that controversy is a great way to create PR for your book. I might even be cynical enough to believe that Hale actually created the Harris account as her own pseudonym purely so that she could write this article. There’s very little proof of anything in this story. ↩
That’s not to say that there are no unethical methods to revealing a pseudonym. There may be. I’m merely pointing out that if a method is unethical for the philanthropist, then it must also be unethical for the critic and vice versa. ↩