Private citizen, public blog

17 Jun

A high court judge has ruled that "blogging is essentially a public rather than a private activity", so unmasking an anonymous police officer who had previously won a literary award for the Nightjack blog (no longer available.) The news is reported widely; I've chosen to link to the FT's dispassionate account.

Libertarians are incensed. Here's their case: whistleblowers have an important role to play in a free society, exposing hypocrisy and wrong-doing. Without the cloak of anonymity, most would remain silent and our society could suffer as a result. Their case is even stronger in a totalitarian state: if speaking out would expose you to repression at the hands of those in power, then anonymous protest is the only viable route for most people. Essentially, this is an appealing argument in favour of free speech.

Ironically, this blogger was exposed following investigative work by The Times newspaper. Free speech for the newspaper has resulted in no expression for the blogger (and a warning from his employer).

Let's call the counter-argument the corporate perspective. This argues that employees have a contractual and professional responsibility to act in the best interests of the employer by, for example, not revealing confidential information. People dealing with matters considered to be of national security are governed by the Official Secrets Act; and most professionals and politicians struggle when personal conscience clashes with collective responsibility.

These questions have always existed. What's new is the ease in which personal publishing (blogging) can move from the private into the public sphere. What starts as a personal diary can end up being viewed as mass media. What lessons do we learn from this?

  • Transparency requires that, in all but exceptional circumstances, blogs are stronger for coming from a named, identifiable source. The first place I turn to when visiting a new blog is the About page.
  • The act of publishing means making something public. The rules have changed, though: 'publish then filter' means that most of what bloggers write remains effectively anonymous. But the advice has to be: 'Write with consideration. Your words may be read, even years from now.'
  • Organisations need guidelines for employees on using social media. It's not a straightforward question of banning – or controlling – all engagement. Most organisations want to believe they operate as open, not closed, systems and many employees (certainly most knowledge workers) resent attempts at 'command and control'. It's not a narrow legal question; it's a broad matter of the mission and culture of the organisation and should be the domain of corporate public relations practitioners and advisers.

One Response to “Private citizen, public blog”

  1. David Phillips 18/06/2009 at 8:08 am #

    An excellent perspective.
    The nature of apparent anonymity does mean that for many, there is a sense of being hidden which some like to use.
    Indeed, it is possible to make it very hard to be discovered but, as we are finding out from Estonia this week, government geeks are building powerful tools as ‘defences’ in cyberwars.
    The libertarians will have a field day with this.

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