Anonymity and the Internet

Never assume that you are “anonymous” on the internet. You can go through hoola hoops to hide your identity if you know your stuff, but 99.9% of people don’t know how to do this. Is it worth it? The only time I can think of someone wanting to post an anonymous comment is if they have something that is so important to tell but simply are unable to reveal their name. This is an exception. It should happen in very few cases. One example might be a real victim of crime. Even in that situation, you would hope that the person doesn’t just use the internet, but actually goes to the police and makes a formal complaint. If they cannot bring themselves to make a formal complaint, then depending on the nature of what they have written, we make a value judgement call on whether it is reasonable that they remain anonymous in the context. There are far too many weasels, sock-puppets, and malingerers on the net who make “anonymous” comments which are demonstratively false and hurtful. That’s not what anonymity is about. That’s just offensive cowardice. Some websites are simply magnets for these toilet-like comments: Scott Rosenberg’s blog is one example where there is much horrible comment and back stabbing.

Sometimes, it is unfair. There is no effective right of reply because of smoke and daggers and innuendo. When we say things, just like in our daily speech, we need to be careful that there is a positive purpose in what we say or write, and that we are very sure about the veracity of our statement.

When I started blogging, it was for my benefit, so to speak. I enjoyed and enjoy the opportunity to express what’s on my mind, or something I have learned. In doing so, I have been (or tried to be) very conscious of not allowing ad hominem attacks via comments, and have edited and rejected comments accordingly. I don’t force people to login to show their identity; they could use a fake email, but anyone who thinks that authorities can’t trace them, should think again. I know a little about these things as a computer scientist. That being said, I’ve only once wanted to find out someone’s identity, and that’s when that person made threats to my family through this blog. In the end, I let it go. If it would have occurred more than once, that person may have found me on their door step, with an officer in tow.

It comes then, as little surprise that the “anonymous” blogger “ifyoutickleus” who has been trying to out R’ Chaim Halpern of London, is now under attack. R’ Halpern’s supporters have applied to find out “who he or she is” via google (who host that blog). This is not new. We have such cases in Australia as well.

It will be an interesting unfolding episode. If R’ Halpern is found guilty of an infraction of Jewish Law, then as I understand it, the anonymous blogger may not be found guilty of defamation?  But who will determine if R’ Halpern allegedly did what he is purported to have done (which I understand may not be against Secular Law)? Will it involve the courts summoning the new Beis Din that has been formed to judge this case, and about which I understand very few women trusted enough to come forward? Will they subpoena the Rabbis who have publicly called on R’ Halpern to resign? This is going to get very messy, and I think R’ Halpern’s advisors have made a poor call. They may end up knowing who is publicising the material “anonymously” if google cough up the information, but that won’t cleanse R’ Halpern, surely, except in the eyes of one-eyed supporters. One needs to look at these issues with both eyes. If R’ Halpern has nothing to answer for, so be it. If, on the other hand, some allegations are true, then he should do the honourable thing, and step aside.

The mere fact that there was already an exposé on Channel 4, in which R’ Padwa did not emerge in a very good light as far as the issue of Mesira is concerned, would tend to suggest that this new subpoena will only cause a brighter torch to shine on the Charedi community in London, and Jews as a whole. Not good. It is true that R’ Halpern has a right to defend himself. Did the Beis Din who is sitting on this case, give permission to R’ Halpern to apply to the secular courts? Who did?

In the meanwhile, the rest of us sit back and ask ourselves, “why is this happening?”