On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, as a famous New Yorker cartoon once said. Nobody knows when you're the CEO of a big company, either, or a popular doctor, or a columnist posting comments on his or her own writings – if you're writing under an assumed name. And while anonymity can be an attractive feature of the Internet, how and when you use it raises some interesting ethical questions.
In particular, is it OK for a prominent public figure to anonymously criticize his critics, or anonymously promote his or her company?
Three recent cases illustrate this point. Last week, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, the natural foods supermarket, was exposed as "rahodeb," a frequent poster in the Yahoo! finance message boards for years. When he wasn't anonymously touting his own company in the postings, he was often attacking his main competition, Wild Oats. And now that Whole Foods is trying to buy Wild Oats, his anonymous postings have come back to haunt him.
Late Friday, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an "informal investigation" into rahodeb's postings to see if any laws had been broken. But even if no laws were broken, many business experts have raised questions about the ethics of Mr. Mackey's actions, and more than a few say it has damaged both him and his company.
In another example of anonymous posting gone bad, a well-known Boston pediatrician's penchant for anonymous blogging produced what The Boston Globe referred to in May as a "Perry Mason moment." Under cross examination in a malpractice trial in which he was the defendant, Dr. Robert P. Lindeman admitted that he was the blogger known as "flea." Most jurors had no idea why such information was important and probably ignored it.
Yet the very next day, Dr. Lindeman settled the case against him. Why? As "Dr. Flea," he had made several derogatory postings about the jury hearing his case on his medical blog.
"Flea had ridiculed the plaintiff's case and the plaintiff's lawyer," wrote the Globe. "He had revealed the defense strategy. He had accused members of the jury of dozing."
Journalists had a field day with this material, so you'd figure that they would know better about posting anonymously. But that wasn't the case for Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Michael Hiltzik, who writes the Golden State column for the Los Angeles Times. In April 2006, Mr. Hiltzik admitted he'd posted remarks on both his L.A. Times blog and on other websites under names other than his own, apparently in an effort to reply to conservative bloggers who had attacked his writings. The columnist used more than one pseudonym, sometimes having his alter egos argue with one another.
Hiltzik was suspended for a time and had his blog taken away.
Anonymous posting is part of the Internet culture. Visit any popular blog or forum, and you'll see that most comments are made under pseudonyms. In most cases, postings are made by folks who want to express their opinions on politics or entertainment figures or some popular fad.
Nothing can stop a well-known public figure from posting anonymously. In fact, the temptation must be even greater for them, since in their public lives, they have to carefully watch everything they say.
Josh Ehrlich, a New York-based executive coach with a doctorate in psychology, says that the Mackey case may not be so unusual. "Executives like to know how they are viewed and how their companies are viewed," he says in a phone interview. "But there is this illusion on anonymity that they think protects them. I think we'll find out that there are a lot more executives doing this. I know we're just talking about the Mackey case, but I think we'll find out that it's just the tip of the iceberg."
It may be common, but it's not smart. Common sense says that public figures need to be as careful with anonymous posts as they are with their daily utterances, because those posts may eventually be used against them. All three of the anonymous "posters" above were "outed" by those trying to gain an advantage in a lawsuit or trying to make them look bad.
There is also that nasty ethical issue: Just because you can write under a pseudonym doesn't mean you should, especially if it compromises your integrity or threatens your company.
Avoiding the use of pseudonyms online is not just good advice for public figures, it works for everyone. The freedom of the Internet doesn't mean you can do whatever you want without consequence. Many ways exist to trace "anonymous" posts. The Los Angeles Times, for example, used Internet addresses to trace Hiltzik's postings back to his work computer.
When speaking about the Internet at conferences or seminars, I give this advice about e-mail, posting comments in a forum, or sending instant messages: Don't write anything online that you would not like to see on the front page of The New York Times. Ask Bill Gates: That's where his e-mails ended up during the Microsoft antitrust case in the late 1990s.
On the Internet nobody may know you're a dog. But don't count on the fact that someone won't be able to find out where that dog lives.