Gossip sites push Web 'anonymity' to fore

From Wikileaks to JuicyCampus, new outlets for unattributed comments affect the way we view information.

By , Columnist

It's the kind of stuff that makes you look twice – or not want to look at all. The postings on the website JuicyCampus.com leave little to the imagination. The posts include information on who slept with whom, unfiltered sentiments expressed about other people on the poster's campus, racist comments, lots of misogynist ramblings, and even an incredibly long piece about Alexander the Great. Yes, that Alexander.

But then again, the people making the posts are doing so anonymously. In fact, that's JuicyCampus's shtick – "C'mon. Give us the juice. Posts are totally, 100 percent anonymous."

(Maybe. Then again, maybe not. But more on that in a few paragraphs.)

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Then there's RottenNeighbor.com. It's like JuicyCampus in that it allows anonymous posting – although the posts don't seem quite as puerile. RottenNeighbor bills itself as "the first real estate search engine of its kind, helping you find troublesome neighbors before you sign the paperwork on your new house, condo, or apartment."

The site allows people to post their names if they want to (as if) and encourages them to present "evidence" of the malfeasance of their "rotten neighbors" using videos and photos. It also allows users to leave positive comments about neighbors. But not many of the comments were positive. During a recent visit I found several postings about housing being used by "illegal immigrants," a posting about a woman who complained that her neighbors were too loud, and another calling a man a racist murderer.

You have to register to post. (In some ways, RottenNeighbor strives to be a social-networking site – you can add friends, vote on posts, etc.) So while your post may be anonymous, you are not – at least to the people who run the site.

David Ardia, director of the Harvard Law School-affiliated Citizen Media Law Project, calls anonymity a complex issue and one that is changing with the way people consume information with advances in technology. And we need to look at the question of anonymity in a variety of ways.

Take, for instance, the recent case involving Wikileaks.org, designed to let whistle-blowers anonymously report on or post documents about government or corporate misdeeds. The site was "disappeared" last week by a judge after it was sued by an arm of a Swiss bank located in the Cayman Islands.

"Anonymous political speech is absolutely protected by the First Amendment," says Mr. Ardia, who had earlier told the media that the actions of the judge in the Wikileaks case were unconstitutional.

And, indeed, on Friday the federal judge withdrew a prior order he had given to turn off the site's Web address, Wikileaks.org. Interestingly, the judge grappled with a way to not only protect the identity of clients on the documents from the Swiss bank which had first sued Wikileaks, but also to not trample on the First Amendment.

"Maybe that's just the reality of the world that we live in," the judge said. "When this genie gets out of the bottle, that's it."

And that, says Ardia, is what might also be the case with other kinds of anonymous speech at sites like the two mentioned above.

First, it's important to note that anonymity is ultimately only as good as the lawyer defending your posting from a lawsuit. The notion that a posting is "anonymous" is bogus. If someone feels slandered, defamed, or libeled by something posted on sites like the ones mentioned above, there are lots of high-tech ways they can be tracked down using records of IP addresses, etc. (Just ask the folks who've had to pay thousands of dollars for downloading pirated music because the Recording Industry Association of America was able to find them.)

JuicyCampus tries to get around these measures, by telling people they don't want information from them, instructing users how to turn off "cookies" if they like, and also how to find IP-cloaking software on Google. Some people might do that – but you can bet the vast majority of people using the site won't bother.

So the old saying still applies: Don't write anything in an e-mail or post anything on a website that you would not like to see on the front pages or in the broadcasts of the country's major media one day.

But things are changing, and so are attitudes toward what is posted online. "I think we have to rethink the way we consume information," Ardia says. The reality is that information that would have led to court action a decade ago is viewed differently now because of how technology has changed.

Ardia makes an interesting comparison. There are places on the Internet that people trust for information, and there are places where the information has to be viewed with a more "nuanced understanding."

"People don't assume things written on a bathroom wall are the truth," Ardia says. "And you know, if I read something anonymously written about my neighbor that I don't give any [credence to], I would probably post something that says nice things about my neighbor."

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