Nee-Naw! It’s The Blog Police

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A legal ruling about bloggers’ rights to privacy was almost buried within the hullaballoo surrounding yesterday’s Digital Britain report. It’s a landmark judgment though – and if you blog anonymously or under an assumed name, you would do well to sit up and take notice.

From The Times:

“Thousands of bloggers who operate behind the cloak of anonymity have no right to keep their identities secret, the High Court ruled yesterday.

“In a landmark decision, Mr Justice Eady refused to grant an order to protect the anonymity of a police officer who is the author of the NightJack blog. The officer, Richard Horton, 45, a detective constable with Lancashire Constabulary, had sought an injunction to stop The Times from revealing his name.”

It isn’t the first time that the newspaper has outed a popular blogger. NightJack has now been deleted in its entirety, which is a shame because it had been going for a while and it was a great blog. Its author provided an insider’s view of the police force; often eye-opening, sometimes jaw-dropping and always an interesting read. Earlier this year, NightJack won the prestigious Orwell Prize for political writing, which speaks for itself. (At the winner’s request, the prize money was donated to the Police Benevolent Fund.) It will be missed.

There is growing criticism about The Times‘ decision to track down and name Detective Constable Horton. The newspaper’s defence of its action appears to centre upon its allegation that NightJack featured details about real-life prosecutions – even though the details of these cases were changed and anonymised – and that the blogger’s exposure was in the public interest.

The judge in the case, Mr Justice Eady, isn’t new to high-profile privacy cases: last year he ruled that the News of the World‘s had breached Max Mosley’s right to privacy after revealing details about Mr Mosley’s sexual predilections. This, however, is what he had to say about bloggers (from The Times):

“In the first case dealing with the privacy of internet bloggers, the judge ruled that Mr Horton had no “reasonable expectation” to anonymity because “blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity”.

“The judge also said that even if the blogger could have claimed he had a right to anonymity, the judge would have ruled against him on public interest grounds.

“The police officer, the judge said, had argued that he should not be exposed because it could put him at risk of disciplinary action for breaching regulations. But Mr Justice Eady criticised that argument as “unattractive to say the least”.”

The corporate blogs that I work across all promote the expertise and insights of named, bona fide individuals. But anonymous bloggers have been fair game for years: remember when there was a hysterical (and ultimately unsuccessful) race to unmask the author of Belle du Jour? (UPDATE: since outed – ah well, it was a good run.)

Now that the High Court has rubberstamped such witch hunts, it’s more important than ever to bear in mind that, if you blog under an assumed name, you should think very carefully about what you publish. The majority of bloggers (Belle du Jour is an honourable exception) can be tracked down; even if you have cloaked your WHOIS  entry, your posts may throw out small clues to your identity. Girl With A One Track Mind, who worked in the film industry, provided occasional crumbs of trivia about her jobs. She was identified after a journalist ran the accumulated information through IMDB.

Image credit: davidsonscott15.

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  1. David Child said on September 7th, 2009 at 9:45 pm

    The idea of anonymous blogging is particularly potent within the PR industry: many PRs blog anonymously for clients under an alias – any attempts to uncover that could lead to a whole host of issues.

    Hopefully the media will remain level-headed in seeking to unmask bloggers – leaving many alone.

    Where there is a genuine public interest or the information is defamatory then by all means blow the whistle, but where it is merely intrigue can we not simply leave well alone.

    Remember Scooby Doo? The big reveal at the end was more often than not a let down – let’s hope we’re not equally disappointed when journalists unearth the real face behind our favourite blogs.

  2. Sally said on September 17th, 2009 at 12:27 am

    My opinion is that bloggers have every right to remain anonymous unless what they have written could be deemed a risk to public safety, or it is in the publics best interest, etc etc.

  3. Nick said on September 28th, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Personally I’d like this kind of activity to be covered under whistleblowing rules – so while there is a need to demonstrate publication is in the public interest, I’d much rather hear the opinions of an anonymous person on the inside than not at all.

    I shall add it to my list of policy areas to rant about!

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Hello! We are Karyn Fleeting and Joel Turner . We are both directors at Tinderbox Media: a digital PR agency specialising in business blogs, which is based in North Yorkshire, UK. On Corporate Blogger we write about our observations, experiences and ideas drawn from working with our corporate clients on various web-based projects.

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