When rights collide?

One of the angles not covered in the Old Holborn fall out is that of privacy.

For the uninitiated, firstly where have you been? And secondly the story is roughly as follows:

  1. Opinionated anonymous tweeter and blogger says some things that some people in Liverpool find highly offensive;
  2. People in Liverpool do some research and find out the name, address, workplace, phone number etc of tweeter, publish it, and there is some harassment such as phone calls, threats, mails and calls to his employer etc.
  3. The tweeter’s account is suspended – probably by the tweeter.
  4. The police are called – probably by both parties, but for different reasons.
  5. The tweeter comes back online.

The issue of general free speech has been the subject of much debate. But there is a specific angle which may split Libertarians: Is it acceptable to publicise someone’s name, address and other personal details – if they haven’t given permission, and especially if they have let it be known that they wish to be anonymous?

Let’s get rid of the easy answer first:

Where it’s someone “official” who has been provided with the personal information, they should not give it out – at least without a court order. This applies to the government, ISPs, utility companies etc. And where such information is collected from these people illegitimately though hacking, social engineering, or because someone knows some who works there, again it is patently wrong.

One of the above may have been true in this case. But some tweets have indicated that someone knew someone who had a sister who went to the tweeter’s wedding. By knowing the name and the spouse’s name they could do a little research, review old tweets for clues, do some Googling, some searching on LinkedIn and put together the full identity picture.

So at the end of the day, with the exception of the friend’s friend’s sister, it was all put together using public domain information.

We libertarians may rush to the libertarian gods for answers – the Rothbards, the Rands etc – but they pre-date the internet and aren’t very helpful. We can refer to rights and discuss whether our personal information is our property and therefore whether we need to give permission before it is published. But every day we may give our name to casual acquaintances and tell them where we live, and what our job is. Do we need to hand each of them a legal notice telling them that they must not pass this on without express permission?

It’s funny how even some of the most ardent the free speech advocates come down on the side of privacy – even though what is being disclosed is factual. Of course there are problems. Personal information can be used by ne’er-do-wells to hunt someone down and commit violence against them. But one of the challenges of being a free-speech purist is that there can be unfortunate consequences of unfettered speech.

Someone argued with me today that such information was not a part of speech, it was data, and therefore free speech arguments do not apply to it. I countered that free speech involves context, and that part of the context of any utterance is the identity of the speaker.

I would also argue that the risk of “exposure” is a control over the excesses of free speech. In a face to face situation, the control over offensive free speech is the risk that the offended party may initiate violence. This of course is wrong, but of scant comfort when you’ve got a bloody nose and the aggressor has scarpered. With online speech, there is no bloody nose – unless you’re outed to your foes and one of them has the balls to come calling.

As ever, there is never a perfect solution. It’s about balancing conflicting “rights”. Free speech is a natural right. I’m not convinced however, that rights exist in our personal data, except where data is given with the specific expectation that it should be entrusted. The risk of exposure for an anonymous blogger may help to curtail the most offensive excesses of their output.

But really, the main lesson is this: If you know you’re going to offend people online, and those people might come after you, you need to keep your real life and online personae totally separate – even from friends and family. If you wish to keep such personae apart from the “authorities” and from those who might be able to steal information from the authorities, then you’ll need to learn about TOR, proxy servers and other electronic anonymisation and obfuscation tools too.

  • James Rigby
  • Lives in Wickford, Essex
  • Information Security Consultant.

And doesn’t care who knows it. At least not when I’m not offending anyone.


  1. Interesting article, James, and I have also thought about this.

    Is it acceptable to publicise someone’s name, address and other personal details – if they haven’t given permission, and especially if they have let it be known that they wish to be anonymous?

    Against the background where the internet makes privacy practically impossible I would suggest that it is bad manners to “out” someone who has tried to comment and write anonymously however it is obviously not a crime.

    For a brief moment a few years back, it seemed that having an anonymous internet persona allowed bloggers to play with ideas and words with complete freedom. Anyone could write anything they liked, free from all consequence and, if you remember the Devil’s Kitchen in its prime, you might agree with me that such freedom was exhilarating. Old Holborn was born out of that moment.

    However the seeds of the destruction of that kind of intoxicating liberation were already contained in the freedom provided by the internet to do research, and to discover truth. Maintaining anonymity is now almost impossible, as OH has discovered. (Incidentally, I seem to remember he was originally outed after a spat with Obnoxio the Clown some years ago and the latter was severely criticised by other bloggers at the time).

    Of course piercing the shield of anonymity takes effort and, for that resaon, many commenters retain an anonymous internet name. I have one myself however I have no delusions whatever that, whenever I comment using that persona, my true identity might be revealed.

    And I am certainly constrained by that fact not to write anything libellous or that I believe might be hurtful to others and I only write what I believe to be true. However the immediate anonymity conferred by the alias allows me to debate and play with ideas in ways that I might not if I were concerned that every word I write, on a daily basis, might be pored over by a future employer or state official.

    But I now believe that, if we are to be true to ourselves, responsibility should come with freedom and we should all be accountable to everyone for our own words and actions. That, in my view, is the cornerstone of real freedom of speech- accountability to, and for, ourselves.



  2. “If you know you’re going to offend people online, and those people might come after you, you need to keep your real life and online personae totally separate – even from friends and family.”

    Indeed. And offend is the right word, because just about everything I say online could be offensive to someone, including members of my own family. Offense is highly subjective, so there’s no telling what the blow-back might be, from whom, or when.

    My attitude to privacy is very similar to my attitude to patents etc.: protect yourself, don’t expect others to protect you, even if they say they will.

    I personally am not using Tor, since I’m not desperately trying to stay anonymous, just trying not to leave a trail of anti-socialism all over the place which might come back to me. Random terrorists and employers (same difference) will not know who I am, that’s good enough.

    Free speech ends when there is a “credible threat” made in my view, by which I don’t mean free speech ends at all, but that the person making threats might expect a knock at the door. From this perspective only the people attacking OH have questions to answer, and I’m not sure you could call those threats “credible”. The “breach of privacy” is not interesting in his case, why would your enemies protect your privacy? If he really wants privacy he should get a new name and be more careful next time.



    1. I forgot to mention: there’s a long history of anonymous controversial speech, and it’s very important to be able to do it. Wikipedia warns you to stay anonymous for your own safety, Google+ won’t allow you to stay anonymous. Wikipedia protects free speech and keeps governments at arms length, Google behaves like an arm of government. Important to know who your enemies are.



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