Censorship Mania at the Post

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Yes. The title of this post is a bit of a riff on the one ("Internet Hysteria Strikes The Post") used by "Captain" Ed Morissey when he blogged this Washington Post column by Tom Grubisch earlier in the week.

The column came to my attention only today, when it was reprinted in today's Houston Chronicle, and Captain Ed's posting showed up when I searched Grubisch's name on the Internet in an effort to find a permanent URL for his column, since the Chronicle has the unfortunate practice of posting its material to the Internet only for short periods of time.

Captain Ed and one of his commenters make some good points, and the post is worth reading, but I am playing off his post title for a reason that I'll get to soon enough. Let's consider the WaPo piece first, though.

Grubisch starts out his column with the claim that "we want 'transparency'" -- whatever that is -- "in all institutions, even private ones", and then helpfully suggests that the Internet is one glaring example of a place where this undefined, but universally-desired "transparency" does not exist.

Now, in case you were wondering what "we all want", Grubisch cheerfully tells you in the next few paragraphs:

Imagine going to a meeting about school overcrowding in your community. Everybody at the meeting is wearing nametags. You approach a cluster of people where one man is loudly complaining about waste in school spending. "Get rid of the bureaucrats, and then you'll have money to expand the school," he says, shaking his finger at the surrounding faces.

You notice his nametag -- "anticrat424." Between his sentences, you interject, "Excuse me, who are you?"

He gives you a narrowing look. "Taking names, huh? Going to sic the superintendent's police on me? Hah!"

In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see. [bold added]
Got that? "Transparency" is the freezing-out of the "civic problem-solving process" of anyone who will refuse to identify himself to any busybody who can't just ignore (or complain to a proper authority about) someone he finds obnoxious or who deems what he says to be "hate-mongering". In other words, we should censor anyone on the Internet who will not openly identify who he is. (I set aside two other blatant problems with this example: (1) It is far easier to ignore a stupid Internet posting than it is to ignore someone at the podium during a meeting; and (2) Whether someone is allowed to speak at a meeting anyway is up to the organizers of that meeting, not some random gadfly who gets offended.)

And if you think my criticism of Grubisch is overblown, consider the following paragraphs, which he writes after discussing the ways that some Internet sites have already cut down on the noise from actual flame-wars, while helpfully indicating that (1) "many sites are [still] unwitting enablers" at which "Mr. anticrat424 could still find a well-amplified podium", but that (2) "one concern common to all sites is whistle-blowers".
Online pioneer Vin Crosbie suggests that sites -- whether personal blogs, community sites or major news providers -- should be flexible enough to grant pseudonyms to users who want to blow a whistle. This would require sites to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. How often would such intervention be required? Not enough to require most sites to hire extra staff.

A site that grants a pseudonym would have to know the poster's real name as well as some facts that back up any accusations. The site wouldn't have to cave in whenever it was slapped with a subpoena. Courts have ruled that both anonymous and pseudonymous posters have "qualified privilege" under the First Amendment that protects their identities and puts a high legal bar in front of subpoena seekers.


If Web sites required posters to use their real names, while giving the shield of pseudonymity when it's merited, spirited online debate would continue unimpeded. It might even be enhanced by attracting contributors who are turned off today by name calling and worse. Except for the hate-mongers, who wouldn't want that? [bold added]
(Nice argument from intimidation there, at the end, Grubisch. I love you, too.)

Notice first that Grubisch is well aware that if sites wanted to cut down on flame wars, they already have the means at their disposal to do so. Furthermore, he realizes that some do and some do not. He tosses in, casually, that "personal blogs ... should be flexible enough to grant pseudonyms to users" [my emphasis].

So does he mean that Gus Van Horn should show this "flexibility" -- or that Google's Blogspot is actually the "personal blog"? This is important, because Grubisch thinks that for an author to use a pseudonym, he should have to identify himself to someone else or prove to that person's satisfaction that he is a "whistle-blower" -- with an air-tight case. Somehow, I don't think he wants to leave that decision to me. Or Google, either, for that matter.

The facile (and false) equation of what Grubisch finds a fringe viewpoint with a rude method of delivery, and his false dichotomy of the motives for wanting to remain anonymous -- between a desire not to be accountable and a desire to expose a specific case of wrongdoing -- are both bad enough, in that they plant some very serious misconceptions into the minds of his readers.

But the clincher is Grubisch's use of the concept of "transparency" in the context of "even private" institutions. This is a clear allusion to the onerous Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed not so long ago in the name of "transparency" and has proved to be a major burden on corporate America (an objection he seems to anticipate by assuring that most content providers would not need to "hire extra staff").

Grubisch makes this allusion for a reason: If some content providers performed as he wished, those who wish to remain anonymous for reasons Gubisch has not listed would go elsewhere. The only way to achieve the Internet "transparency" Grubisch wants is by government force. There is no other way to achieve the goal that Grubisch presumes we all want except to somehow make sure that all "private institutions" comply. That "somehow" is government force.

There are many reasons -- many legitimate ones -- besides wanting to become a drive-by flamer or a whistle-blower for one to want to use a pseudonym. For example, has Mr. Grubisch ever considered that, outside his own line of work, it can often properly be considered unprofessional (and very rude) to bring one's political views on the job?

This is the case for me, and I avoid the problem by keeping my blogging identity separate from my professional one. This furthermore allows me to control when my opinions arise at work. The alternative is to potentially allow a coworker who has it out for me and has found out about my blog to make the decision for me by following my blog until I say something he knows will offend someone important, and then bringing up what I said at a very inopportune time.

Or consider Grubisch's own example: whistle-blowing. Suppose that I had evidence that government funding of education -- oh, I don't know -- led to poor schools, promoted wasteful spending, and posed a threat to freedom of speech. The logical outcome of my "whistle-blowing" would, among other things, include a call to eliminate the education bureaucracy. I might even feel strongly-enough about this course of action to put off someone not familiar with my evidence.

So, knowing that most people favor public education because they have not thought about this as much as I have, I have to tell someone, probably a stranger, who I am, present my entire case, and hope said stranger doesn't just decide that he has been handed the equivalent of a fifty-page Klan manifesto -- or simply claim authorship of what I wrote after he determines that I have to worry too much about keeping my own job to blow the whistle on him!

But, no. I am afraid Grubisch is not so obtuse as to have failed to realize that there are more than two reasons to want to remain anonymous when posting one's opinions on the Internet. Nor is he so naive as to really believe that making people unable to post anonymously will allow "spirited online debate [to] continue unimpeded".

No. Tom Grubisch is well aware, that with the Democrats controlling both houses of Congress now, and possibly the Presidency in the relatively near future -- the same Democrats who are trying to revive and extend the "Fairness" Doctrine -- that there is a strong chance that it will be possible to quash public debate by making people like me have to choose between shutting up or giving out our real names to total strangers.

And this brings me to my last point. Although Ed Morissey made excellent points in his own post, he would be wise not to so easily dismiss Grubisch as a hysteric -- though he clearly wants to sow hysteria. We who value our freedom of speech should take the Tom Grubisches of the world very seriously. They aren't nearly so funny when they get their way.

-- CAV


: One minor edit.


Sid said...

Good thing you don't live in South Korea. It is mandated by law there to give out your name in an online discussion.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's bad news for South Korea.

z said...

I just want you to know you're my anchor Objectivist blog on the internet. I always come to you first.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thank you, z!