The Problems with Anonymous Blogging

Filed as Guides on July 1, 2011 6:34 pm

Whenever I talk with others about the legal risks that come with blogging, it is inevitable that someone says that the risks don’t apply to them as they blog anonymously and no one will ever know who they are.

The truth is that, while anonymous blogging may be great for certain purposes, it isn’t a bullet proof vest that lets you do dumb things legally without fear of reprisal. Even if you can bring together a perfectly anonymous site, you have to be flawless in your execution of it ensuring that every single interaction, no matter how small, is untraceable.

While anonymous or pseudonymous blogging might be good enough to fool your mother, your boss or your friends, it won’t be enough to fool law enforcement nor anyone with adequate motivation and resources to track you down.

Anonymous blogging may free you up to say things you otherwise couldn’t, but it doesn’t free you up to break the law. Basically, if you’re blogging under a different name, you should expect to be found out if you make it interesting enough for anyone to seek out your information.

The Technical Challenges to Anonymous Blogging

Anonymous blogging is not a matter of just choosing a good pen name for yourself, using a domain privacy service and then blogging to your hearts desire. If you want to be truly anonymous, you have to think about every element of your site and how they can be traced back to you.

Law enforcement and civil plaintiffs alike can send subpoenas to almost anyone or anything connected with your site in a bid to get more information about you. Depending on the situation, these subpoenas can compel them to turn over any and all data they have on you.

For example, if you use a domain privacy service, it is trivial to subpoena your registrar and obtain the information you actually used to register the domain, including your payment info. The same goes for your host, which can be compelled to give up the information you signed up for an account with and, if necessary, the IP addresses you use to access your account.

Though anonymous blogging systems do exist, they are spotty at best and are often unreliable due to the fact they often attract less-than-legal bloggers.

True anonymous blogging requires that you ensure there is no connection between your real identity and the site as well as no direct connection or traceable connection between your network/your computer and your blog’s server.

To be clear, there are ways to do this and many great guides have been written on this subject, including an official one by the EFF and one on TechSoup.

However, especially for someone new at using these tools, the process is intimidating and the since perfection is required to be completely safe, it’s virtually guaranteed that there will be a break in the protection.

In short, if hackers and virus authors are finding it almost impossible to stay truly anonymous online, there isn’t much hope for the average blogger, especially considering that they are doing something far more public with many more avenues to that open them up to discovery.

Why Anonymous Blogging is Still Useful

The moral to the story above is quite simple, given enough motivation and resources, just about anyone can have their identity online discovered. There is virtually no way to 100% guarantee that you are never found out.

That being said, it’s very similar to other forms of Web security. Given enough interest and expertise, virtually any site, computer or network can be hacked into. However, this doesn’t mean you don’t use antivirus software, firewalls, solid passwords and other tools to make yourself as difficult of a target as possible.

While anonymous blogging might not be enough to protect you should law enforcement take an interest in your site or some powerful entity wish to sue you, it can definitely prevent your boss from finding out what you really think about him or your parents from learning what you really did last weekend.

As mentioned in this guide to anonymous blogging on Problogger, there are actually different levels of anonymous blogging including:

  1. Full-on Anonymity: Where you use a clearly fake name and give absolutely no identifying information.
  2. Semi-Anonymity: Where you use a fake name but give out other identifying information, including, in some cases, images.
  3. Secret Identity: Where you take on a real-sounding fake identity that you hope will prevent others from attempting to find your real name.

Each has their strengths and weaknesses but the basic difference is that the more information you give out, the less anonymous you are but the more your readers are able to identify with you. Likewise, the more things you lie about, the less your readers will trust you, especially if the lie is confirmed later.

All in all, you need to choose a level of anonymity that is right for you. If you just want to make sue future employers can’t Google you, semi-anonymity is likely fine. However, if you’re whistleblowing or otherwise engaging in an activity that may have real-world reprisals, you may want to use “Full-on anonymity” or even create a secret identity.

In short, weigh for yourself the risk of having your identity discovered, how likely someone is to make an effort to find it and how dedicated those efforts will be. From there, choose the level of anonymity that fits your needs (if any). Just don’t expect being an anonymous blogger to serve as cover for illegal activities as you very likely will learn that your pseudonym provides no protection at all.

Bottom Line

As mentioned above, anonymity online is much like security online. There’s no way to be completely secure and no way to be completely anonymous. It’s just a matter of the time, resources and expertise needed to trace someone back to their real name.

The quicker you accept that, the quicker that you learn what anonymous blogging really means and what it truly is best for. Though it won’t keep you safe from the government or from a very motivated plaintiff in a legal case, it can and will protect you from prying bosses, family members and others who might take issue with what you say online.

Basically, it will do little to help you avoid legal consequences for your actions but it may help you avoid other forms of backlash, some of which might be just as problematic and unwanted.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for The Blog Herald. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.

Disclosure

I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.

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