Controlling Community Borders
Comment in Science and Engineering Ethics, vol. 5, no. 3 (1999) on the misuse of anonymous electronic communication in a university setting.

Back to Main Page

Case study: "Good Communication Gone Bad"

A local university established an internal on-line forum for a multicultural awareness project. The forum set out with the goal of opening dialogue among a preselected group of students coming from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Forum topics were unlimited, and participants were very frank in their discussions. Many students and faculty used the forum as a tool for understanding and breaking through stereotypes. Even some personal friendships were formed. The university decided to expand the forum to the entire campus, and offered forum participants the option of using technologies that would enable them to communicate anonymously.

Several months into the forum, as it attracted more and more participation, the tone of the discussions changed. Hateful and threatening comments began to appear on the forum and some students received intimidating messages at their personal e-mail addresses. Students were offended and many began to fear for their well being, especially since they were disclosing personal information about their religious affiliation, cultural practices and daily life schedules. Several students complained to the university.

Commentators were asked the following questions:

  1. What responsibility does the university have to those individuals to whom it promised anonymity? Should it have allowed the use of such technologies for anonymous communications?
  2. What precautions should the university have taken when it expanded the forum?
  3. What is the value of a personís opinion if he/she is unwilling to state it without hiding behind a veil of anonymity? How can one be held accountable if anonymity prevents his/her identification? Beyond formally complaining to the university, what other steps might the students take to protect themselves? To recapture the openess and civility of the original forum?

Communities Must Be Able to Control Their Borders

By Gary T. Marx

This case is a classic example of the difference between two kinds of group. The first is a small "preselected" community with shared standards involving a commitment to explore issues in a cooperative spirit in which members are also personally identifiable. The second is a much larger, more amorphous mass open to anyone regardless of their commitment to the issue or a spirit of cooperation, in which individuals can hide their identity. Given an emotion-filled and contentious topic, it is hardly surprising that the communication would be different in the two contexts.

I think the university erred in promising anonymity in the latter setting. Students in a university are part of a community. Community membership carries certain obligations. Educational institutions should take actions that, however unintended, may encourage anonymous ad hominenum personal attacks, threats to another person or highly inflammatory illogical and empirically unsupported rhetoric. The universityís actions should encourage civility, respect for the dignity of the person, standards of scholarship and support for the values consistent with this such as those expressed in the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Certainly there are contexts where protecting the identity of the communicator is desirable, even in a university. Hot lines for reporting serious wrong doing on the part of superiors or those likely to take vengeance are one example. Discussion groups for sensitive, potentially stigmatizing topics such as alcohol and drug problems, child and spouse abuse, sexual identity, and AIDS and other diseases are examples. The use of pseudonyms and pen names are other well-established examples. But the case is much weaker for offering anonymity in an electronic university context around the expression of general social and political issues.

Communities are defined by borders. Individuals are in or out partly based on sharing the community's values. All viable communities have means of controlling their members and determining membership. Communities may limit the conditions of membership.  I see nothing wrong with denying a student access (whether to a computer network or the university itself) in cases of serious violations of university policies.  When a student (as some of those who participated in this forum appear to have done) refuses to abide by fundamental principles of the university, then limiting or excluding that individual is appropriate. Such control is not possible when anonymity is guaranteed as is the case here. let me turn to the specific questions:

  1. What responsibility does the university have to those individuals to whom it promised anonymity? Should it have allowed the use of such technologies for anonymous communication?



    The order of these questions should be reversed. I think it unwise in this context to have allowed for such communication. As noted above there are certainly times when anonymous communication is necessary and socially valuable.   This is not one of them.  It also is not clear just what the policy entails. Does it mean that the university will permit anonymous postings without the possibility of responding directly to the sender of the message? Does it in addition permit the anonymous sending of personal messages? In this context there is certainly no justification for the latter and I think the arguments for the former are weak given the goals of the university and the importance of sustaining a spirit of trust, open inquiry and community.

    Given this view the first question is moot. I would suggest that the university change its policy at once (and take a close look at the competence of those who set the policy to begin with). With respect to prior communications anonymously posted that simply involve the expression of general ideas and opinions, the university should stand by its policy regardless of how abhorrent the ideas. If however the communication involves personal attacks or threats to identifiable individuals, that is a different matter and further inquiry may be appropriate.

    If such communications suggest violations of laws and policies with respect to harassment, intimidation, stalking and related forms, then the promise of anonymity is outweighed by a greater social good. The university's promise of anonymity was implicitly (and ideally explicitly) limited. There are legal, as well as technical, reasons for qualifying this. While there is debate, most experts agree that maintaining full anonymity in a computer networked world is a very difficult task. Records of the communication exist, even if they are masked or disguised and treated confidentially. A court may demand the records.

  1. What precautions should the university have taken in expanding the forum?



    The university should have had a preamble indicating the purpose of the forum and the rules to which participants must conform. By participating students acknowledge that they will abide by these rules and if they do not, they will be denied the chance to participate. While one would certainly not want to see heavy-eyed censorship of a university forum for the expression of ideas, administrators should be attentive to user complaints.

    If the university insists on anonymous communication, then that could be restricted to a section of the forum reserved only for anonymous communications. Persons going there would be forewarned and also would be led to ask why would the communicator want to hide his or her identity, likely discounting such messages, unless the sender of the message offers compelling reasons for needing to hide.

  3. It is naive to suggest that there is no value behind a person's opinion if they hide their identity. Consider the Federalist Papers (although perhaps some British readers would not see value there). Are George Sands' novels of no value because they were written by someone else? It is also naive to think that individuals must always be held personally accountable for information they offer. Thus if an anonymous tip leads to the discovery of serious wrong doing (whether by corrupt government officials or street thieves) what matters most is the evidence, not what led authorities to discover it.4) What other steps might students take to protect themselves and to recapture the openness and civility of the original forum? Once the forum is opened up the mercury is out of the thermometer and is unlikely to be put back in. Issues of scale apply here  (beyond the anonymity issue). Larger groups for logistical reasons can rarely demonstrate the sense of community, solidarity or responsibility of small groups in intense interaction. But there are things that can be done. For starters students should lobby the university to change its policy. If that is not possible they might let it be known that they will not read any anonymous messages. It might even be possible for them to obtain software that would filter out such messages. They might suggest that an alternative forum be created for those supporting alternate goals. They might require that before individuals can participate they read materials that the original participants read so that newcomers better understand the issues and spirit of the group. A welcoming statement about the group's goals might appear whenever the forum was accessed. A code of computer ethics should be part of a broader code of student conduct. Discussion of the ethical use of computers should be part of the orientation of new students.



    The mature, well-put together student receiving a hostile e-mail might try to engage the sender in a dialogue. Or the recipient might ignore such messages in the hope that the sender, failing to provoke a response, will move on to something else. The student might seek a new e-mail address that identified only by number, or use software instructed to filter out messages from known harassers or individuals who were not appropriately identified.

These are tough issues and approach the status of a moral dilemma. Whatever action is taken there are likely costs and gains. At best we can hope to find a compass rather than a map and a moving equilibrium rather than an eternally fixed decision point. Empirical research and policy and ethical analysis are central to the novel issues constantly being raised by new information technologies. The process of continual intellectual engagement with the issues is as important as the content of the solutions. Engineers have an important contribution to make here. In order to do that they must view themselves as citizens as well as technicians.

Gary T. Marx is Professor Emeritus M.I.T. Papers relevant to this and the more general topic of surveillance may be found at:

Back to Main Page  |  Top

You are visitor number to this page since November 1, 1999.