Think you're really anonymous? Think again.

It's been a big week for anonymity on the Net, but not necessarily a good one.

First, there's "Anonymous," that amorphous collective of Netizens that recently celebrated a year of driving the Church of Scientologist up the friggin' wall. This week I received a press release from the group listing its many accomlishments (anonymously, of course): A number of peaceful protests, the exposure of various CoS front groups, the leaking of confidential CoS documents via WikiLeaks, actions by various international governments against the church, and so on.

But there was one item conspicuously absent from their list: The arrest of Dmitiry Guzner, the 18-year-old from New Jersey who plead guilty to dDOSing the Scientology Web site. Turns out Guzner wasn't so anonymous after all.

(A source close to Anonymous - whose name I do not know - told me a while back he thought there were probably several hundred people involved in the dDOS attacks. That seems more plausible, though whether the Feds will go after them too remains to be seen.)

I asked 'Anonymous' to comment on Guzner. I'm still waiting for a response.

But anonymity on the Net is hardly limited to noble protests and/or juvenile pranks. This week a Texas circuit court judge ruled that anonymity is no defense against libel or defamation on the Web. As Computerworld's Jaikumar Vijayan reports, has been served with papers demanding the identities of 178 posters who wrote nasty things about Mark and Rhonda Lesher, a Clarksville couple who were tried and acquitted for sexual assault last month.

(I won't repeat any of the comments here, but you can find examples in the 365-page complaint filed by the Leshers' attorney [PDF].)

Topix has until March 6 to decide whether to hand over the actual names of the pseudonymous posters. Whether they can make a First Amendment argument to keep the names private is far from a sure thing. College-oriented web forum AutoAdmit was forced to identify several anonymous posters who made ugly and/or threatening comments about two Yale Law students. Ars Technica, on the other hand, notes a handful of cases where courts ruled in favor of anonymous posters, despite defamatory or libelous comments.

As someone who has his own share of blog trolls in various venues, I am opposed to anonymous commenting. (I'm sure I'll get trashed for saying that.) But depending on how the blog is set up, people who think they're commenting anonymously aren't actually all that anonymous. In many cases an email address is required and an IP address is recorded with each post. That's how it's possible to ban persistent spammers from the comments fields. That's also how an attorney could get obtain your identity, or at least get a pretty good idea of who you might be, if you ever got sued for posting something nasty. Think about that the next time you decide to let your fingers do the talking.

Personally, I think anonymity absolutely has its place, but it's a very small place. You should certainly be able to exercise your right to free expression without endangering your life, family, career, or personal freedom. Whistleblowers, confidential informants, political dissidents - these folks would not survive without the shield of anonymity.

But if you choose to be anonymous just so you can be a jerk and get away with it, I have no patience for you. (I use the word 'jerk' here because Computerworld won't let me use a stronger epithet.) I think if you say something online, you should put your reputation on the line along with it. Because that's what will ultimately lead us to have better, more civil, more intelligent conversations across the Net.

When not fending off trolls (and you know who you are), Dan Tynan tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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