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Precision vs Accuracy in Identifying People

Andrew Dowdell and Michael McGuire have an interesting article in the Adelaide Now about censorship in the South Australian election [1]. The South Australian government wants to force everyone who comments on the upcoming SA election to provide their name and postcode. Attorney-General Michael Atkinson said the law was “all about honesty“. However a law that forces someone to not comment as “Anonymous” and instead forces them to use a name that sounds like something that might appear on a birth certificate and a postcode is not going to increase honesty at all.

I think it’s much better to honestly say “I’m not telling you my name” than to lie and claim to be revealing your name. When the government forces people to give precise but totally inaccurate information it seems that it’s going to be bad for everyone. It’s even bad for the people who want to be identified, if most people who comment on a blog post are anonymous then I’d like to be distinguished as the person who uses their real name!

In the vast majority of cases the effort of determining who is using their real name will not be worth the effort. If someone comments on my blog under the name “John Howard from Bennelong” I will be very suspicious that they are using a fake name. But probably the vast majority of the English speaking population of the world wouldn’t immediately identify such a name as fake. If someone wants to comment on my blog and they don’t have a published phone number then I won’t have any good way of identifying their address. If their name and postcode match an entry in a phone book then they still might be faking it – they could take a random name from a phone book. If I was to demand that people who enter blog comments provide their phone numbers then I would have to pay the expense of phoning them as well as dealing with cases of people who are away from home, should I delay a blog comment for a month until the author returns from their European vacation?

I have had a moderate amount of experience in writing letters to the editors of newspapers, and I have only once had an editor phone me to verify my details. In all other cases I guess I could have fooled them if I wished.

I believe that there are already precedents regarding libel, if I approve a blog comment (or fail to unapprove it in a reasonable amount of time if it meats the automatic approval criteria) then I could be sued for libel if the contents of the comment are deemed to be suitably damaging. So if I was to try to get the real names of people who make comments on my blog then it wouldn’t make it any easier for an idiot who wants to sue – also anyone who wants to sue regarding an Australian political issue will probably find me a better target than most people who comment on my blog (a significant portion of whom are from the US and have much greater legal protections of their freedom of speech).

Extending such a law to US based services such as Twitter is just silly. The stockholders and employees of a US based corporation can freely laugh at Australian censorship laws. Also it’s pretty stupid to have a global scope on such laws, as a Victorian why should I care about the South Australian state laws? Implementing laws that can be easily broken inadvertently and can never be enforced against anyone who cares is just pitiful and will result in the MPs who vote for such laws being the object of derision.

Vote for the small parties and independent candidates. Both Labour and Liberal want to censor us, put them in the second last two spots on your vote card!

Now this law doesn’t take affect until the writs for the March 20 election are issued. I encourage Australian bloggers to write bad things about the Liberal and Labour parties after the writs are released which are not libelous and which don’t include your postcode. If they try to apply the new law then your blog post gets wide attention. If you plan to be a professional blogger then you could consider the $5,000 fine to be an advertising fee. If you don’t want to be known then you can use a US based blogging service.

I’m going to continue to write political blog posts whenever I feel like it and I won’t be telling anyone where I live. I will rely on the Streisand effect to save me.

Update:
The politicians in SA have surrendered, the law in question won’t be enforced and will supposedly be repealed after the election [2]. It will be interesting to see whether they really do repeal that law.

2 comments to Precision vs Accuracy in Identifying People

  • Jobst Schmalenbach

    Hi Russell

    While I understand what you are saying I have to disagree somehow as it is vital to be allowed to post anonymously (this is what the law is about and wants to prevent).

    For to be clear I need to tell you where I am coming from and what I know. I was born in West Germany (then) in 55 … cold war, Mauer (the wall) going up, Germany being “overseen” by 3 countries, 69, Cuba and many many more things and left Germany before the wall came tumbling down to live here in Melbourne.

    I, too, had friends on the “wrong” side of the iron curtain and for a short time lived in Berlin (which was what MOST people do not understand surrounded by a wall!!!!!).

    I was a trucker while I was doing my studies in Germany driving throughout Europe and because of my knowledge of other language (and probably IQ) I was frequently used to do some of the more tricky jobs … including trucking into the eastern parts of Europe.

    So I can say that I have a fair amount of background ;-)

    Australia is going a very wrong way in so many ways, be it the environment, internet censorship, woman in business (my boss is a woman) and many other things.

    Now let me speak about freedom to post anonymously. Look at a walk against censorship, walk about the environment. You are anonymous, just one person in the mass of 1000’s of people but you count in a broad way.

    Think about Google and the means of searching. Imagine you look for a new job. You are the employee someone is looking for, you have all the specs, in fact you are the spec. They decide to take you but make one last search on the net … now imagine you complained about something just 2 weeks ago where the HR person doesnt agree with (but has nothing to do with the company) … and you do not get the job (and I can tell you this happens ALL the time … sadly).

    Or some THUG doesn’t agree with what you said and “polishes you up a bit” because your name was all over a posting …..

    Now look at me. I have a rather senior position in a small company … I would be VERY hard for me not being able to post anonymously in “some” cases …

    You vote anonymously, why shouldn’t you be allowed to do the same when complaining against a government that thinks censorship is fine (this is what the internet filter is).

    Last but not least (albeit however silly this may sound) the little steps this current government is taking might just be the first step in something more …

    Jobst

  • etbe

    Jobst: I don’t think that we disagree at all, or if we do disagree then it’s not clear to me from your comment. I merely didn’t address the issue of why anonymous comments can be beneficial in my post and concentrated on the issue of practicality.

    Your point about anonymous votes and anonymous comments is particularly good.

    http://etbe.coker.com.au/2008/09/13/not-all-opinions-are-equal/

    That said, there are benefits to giving information about yourself, the above URL has my thoughts on the issue of how to consider comments by anonymous people. But that’s relative, just posting a name is usually enough to allow the reader to give a little more weight to a comment. Also if someone consistently uses a pseudonym they can gain a reputation for it and be regarded accordingly.