UK Court: Blogger Anonymity Not a Right

A British judge has ruled against a blogger who sought an injunction against having his secret identity published in 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.

[…]

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 action arose after Patrick Foster, a Times journalist, identified the NightJack blogger “by a process of deduction and detective work, mainly using information on the internet,” the judge said.

It’s hard to argue against Eady’s reasoning here. The journalist found Horton’s identity through legitimate means and there was a genuine public interest in learning who this cop was who was revealing all manner of juicy inside details about the police force.

Gawker’s John Cook agrees, arguing, “nobody ought to have a right or privilege to publish whatever they please without the consequences of their ideas redounding to them” and “the notion that anonymous publishers have a right, in perpetuity, to keep their identities a secret—or that people who learn their identities are honor-bound not to reveal them—is nonsense.”  He adds, “There’s nothing inherently wrong with blogging anonymously … though some motivations are more cowardly than others. And much good can and has come from people who are free to write the truth without bearing the consequences. But the decision to do so carries with it certain exceedingly obvious risks, and when the jig is up, it’s best for anonybloggers to endure the scrutiny with dignity rather than complain that people who had no obligation or interest in preserving their anonymity have behaved as such.”

That’s all right, both as a matter of law and practicality. And I agree with Don Surber that “If it might cost you your job or your reputation, then you ought not be doing it.”

I would add, however, that some motivations for revealing the identity of anonymous (or, as in most of these cases) pseudonymous bloggers are more noble than others.  In this case, Foster had a perfectly valid reason for wanting to inform the public as to who this BlackJack fellow was.

UPDATE: Guy Herbert notes that, while Horton has deleted the NightJackblog in order to save his career, “deleting from public knowledge what has once been on the web is difficult.”  He provides a delicious sampling of what was once there, a posting titled “A Survival Guide for Decent Folk.” Among the long list of tips for those taken into police custody:

Admit Nothing
To do anything more than lock you up for a few hours we need to prove a case. The easiest route to that is your admission. Without it, our case may be a lot weaker, maybe not enough to charge you with. In any case, it is always worth finding out exactly how damning the evidence is before you fall on your sword. So don’t do the decent and honourable thing and admit what you have done. Don’t even deny it or try to give your side of the story. Just say nothing. No confession and CPS are on the back foot already. They forsee a trial. They fear a trial. They are looking for any excuse to send you home free.

Keep your mouth shut
Say as little as possible to us. At the custody office desk a Sergeant will ask you some questions. It is safe to answer these. For the rest of the time, say nothing.

Always always always have a solicitor
Duh. No brainer this one. Unless you know 100% for sure that your mate the solicitor does criminal law and is good at it, ask for the Duty Solicitor. They certainly do criminal law and they are good at it. Then listen to what the solicitor says and do it. Their job is to get you off without the Cops or CPS laying a glove on you if at all possible. It is what they get paid for. They are free to you. There is no down side. Now decent folks think it makes them look like they have something to hide if they ask for a solicitor. Irrelevant. Going into an interview without a solicitor is like taking a walk in Tottenham with a big gold Rolex. Bad things are very likely to happen to you. I wouldn’t do it and I interview people for a living.

Actively complain about every officer and everything they do
Did they cuff you when they brought you in? Were they rude to you? Did they racially or homophobically abuse you? Didn’t get fed? Cell too cold? You are decent folk who don’t want to make a fuss but trust me, it pays to whinge and no matter how trivial and / or poorly founded your complaint there are people who will uncritically listen to you and try and prove the complaint on your behalf. Some of them are even police officers. Nothing like a complaint to muddy the waters and suggest that you are only in court because the vindictive Cops have a grudge against you. Far fetched? Wait until your solicitor spins it in court and you come over as Ghandi.

Show no respect to the legal system or anybody working in it
You think that if you are a difficult, unpleasant, sneering, unco-operative and rude things will go badly for you and you will be in more trouble. No sirree Bob. It seems that in fact the worse you are, the easier things will go for you if, horror of horrors, you do end up convicted. Remember to fake a drink problem if you haven’t developed one as a result of dealing with us already. Magistrates and Judges do seem to like the idea that you are basically good but the naughty alcohol made you do it. They treat you better. Crazy I know but true.

One can see where Horton’s employers might have preferred him not offering up such tips for the public in his spare time.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Law and the Courts, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Eric Florack says:

    I would add, however, that some motivations for revealing the identity of anonymous (or, as in most of these cases) pseudonymous bloggers are more noble than others.

    Well, this raises the question, though of how one deals with nobility of purpose as a matter of law. And who gets to decide what is and is not ‘noble’?

    “Publius”, call your office.

    I mean, was he ‘noble’ in his attacks on Whalen?

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, this raises the question, though of how one deals with nobility of purpose as a matter of law. And who gets to decide what is and is not ‘noble’?

    I think the law is absolute: People have a right to out anonymous/pseudonymous bloggers. As to who decides what’s noble, it’s the reading public.

  3. Furhead says:

    “If it might cost you your job or your reputation, then you ought not be doing it.”

    As I think I mentioned in the Publius thread, I tend to disagree with this sweeping statement. It’s called whistle-blowing, and people lose their jobs for it all the time. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be doing it.

  4. James Joyner says:

    It’s called whistle-blowing, and people lose their jobs for it all the time. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be doing it.

    We’ve got laws on the books to protect whistle blowers, although I can’t vouch for their effectiveness.

    Neither the Publius nor the NightJack cases involve whistle-blowing, however. Publius wanted to shield his political views from his career and family for a variety of reasonable rationales. NightJack was giving away case information and the inside dope on policing, not exposing corruption or specific misdeeds.

  5. Eric Florack says:

    I think the law is absolute: People have a right to out anonymous/pseudonymous bloggers. As to who decides what’s noble, it’s the reading public.

    Mmm. That would be fairly well consistant with the position I took in the Whalen case.

    That said, I must admit a level of concern about this. You mention “Public Interest”, James… isn’t “Public Interest” what hustled us down the road to Kelo, for example? I’d be more interested in the concerns of the individual being bitchslapped by an anon blogger, as Whalen was, and repeatedly.

    I wonder though, given the (agreed upon) absolute nature you cite, how to seperate the government outting someone who was making it look bad, vs an individual protecting themselves from anon attacks.

  6. Eric Florack says:

    Let me add some clarity, here. There’s a major difference between individuals outting anonymous bloggers, and the government doing it. I’ve no problems with Whalen outing Publius, as an example, but the Nixon administration outting ‘Deep Throat” by virtue of the same law is inherrently dangerous, in my view. I wonder how law could address that.

  7. Furhead says:

    Neither the Publius nor the NightJack cases involve whistle-blowing, however.

    Fair enough. And perhaps I was taking the statement too generally. I’d have a hard time finding a counter-example to the “reputation” part of it, regardless.

  8. James Joyner says:

    I’d be more interested in the concerns of the individual being bitchslapped by an anon blogger, as Whalen was, and repeatedly.

    That’s the nature of blogging. It would be one thing if Publius had been spreading lies about Whelan or some such. Blogging about what an idiot Whelan was, though, is part of the game.

  9. Eric Florack says:

    Arguably, though, the right to unmask changes the game.

  10. PD Shaw says:

    It’s called whistle-blowing, and people lose their jobs for it all the time. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be doing it.

    As James pointed out, there are laws protecting whistle-blowers from being fired for reporting violations of law. But that’s a narrow category, most of what people think is whistle-blowing is merely gossip that casts an employer in a bad light.

  11. EdGi says:

    Jim, NightHawk should have added, “anything you say can and will definitly be used against both you and anyone associated with you” Whistleblowers, warriors and insiders are all vulnerable to outrage from the offended, which gives outside people with no vulnerability license to be ignorant and the insider dead. I am continually amazed at those who think they have protection of any kind on the internet. Freedom is not free, and we need a way to work with the risks.