Feature Suggestion: one way anonymity

by Yair Halberstadt1 min read17th Oct 202117 comments

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Sometimes there's something I want to write, where I would be perfectly happy for whoever happens to read it on Less Wrong and is interested in who the author is to check and see it's me, but I don't want the post to appear in search results for my name.

I also don't want anyone who opens my profile on Less Wrong to see the post.

There could be various reasons for this - perhaps I'm about to claim that tabs are better than spaces and I don't want potential employers to see such heresy if they search for me. Perhaps I'm asking for suggestions for my wife's birthday present and don't want her to find out what it is.

My suggestion is to allow posting semi-anonymously. The name that would appear on such posts is "anonymous" but the name would be a link to the author's user profile. The post wouldn't appear on the users profile, but any votes would change the users karma as usual.

Perhaps it should only be possible for a user with sufficient karma to click on the link to the user profile, so that some bad actor can't scrape all semi-anonymous posts and publish the author's names in a searchable format, or at least if they do it should be straightforward to detect and block that user.

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This strategy didn't work well for Scott Alexander, and will fail for you in a similar situation -- if someone decides to publish an article containing your name (so it will appear in search results for your name), linking the semi-anonymous article (where people coming from their article will be able to verify that it is you).

The name that would appear on such posts is "anonymous" but the name would be a link to the author's user profile. 

If your username is your real name, then the link to your profile contains your real name, and therefore the HTML code of the semi-anonymous article also contains your real name. Not sure if this is enough for search engines to show the article when people search for your name.

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This isn't meant to be perfectly secure. It's meant to be a bit more secure than currently.

It's also better than the Scott Alexander situation, since your articles can only be doxed one at a time, rather than all at once.

Finally there's ways of doing the link such that it reveals nothing. I'm fact it will need to be the case if you only allow users with some minimum of Karma to follow the link.

Sorry, missed that part. If the link to author profile is not included in the article, but is only downloaded after the user (with sufficient karma) clicks on the button, my objections do not apply.

It's also better than the Scott Alexander situation, since your articles can only be doxed one at a time, rather than all at once.

It would be simple to write a bot that would scrape names from all the semi-anonymous articles. Someone could even set up a LessWrong mirror that automatically de-anonymised everything.

As suggested, we could force them to have a lesswrong account with e.g. 100 karma.

It should be straightforward to detect such a bot (the same user account clicking on every single semi anonymous article) and blocking it, and gaining 100 kudos is annoying enough to make it not worth doing repeatedly.

Trivial Inconveniences seems relevant. As has been mentioned, this doesn't provide anything close to perfect anonymity, and it isn't intended to. What it does is it adds a trivial inconvenience for people looking to internet-stalk you, which we know can be very powerful. Actually, I think the inconvenience is a lot more than trivial.

I really like things like this. I think it's possible we could do a "decent enough" job, though it's impossible to have a solution without risk.

One thing I've been thinking about is a browser extention. People would keep a list of things, like, "User XYZ is Greg Hitchenson", and then when it sees XYZ, it adds annotation". 

Lots of people are semi-anonymous already. They have psuedonyms that most people don't know, but "those in the know" do. This sort of works, but isn't formalized, and can be a pain. (Lots of asking around: "Who is X?")

I think Yair Halberstadt is aware that it is not safe - but that doesn't seem to be his goal anyway. I like this too. I did something a bit like this a while ago in the LW wiki. Pages there aren't found via the author search either - but can be traced back by checking who edited the page.

Have you considered creating a separate account and the dropping a link to your main account in the second account's bio? I know at least one person on LW who does something analogous to this.

That's a potential option. One disadvantage is that as soon as somebody's made the connection, they can then continue stalking the author forever, whereas with the suggested proposal clicking on the link once wouldn't help you find other semi-anonymous posts.

Why not go one step further and allow using throwaway accounts or not publicly link to the poster's profile? The association would still be visible to the administrators/moderators in case some action needs to be taken.

On the forum I run, we have 2 million+ registered users without real names but with emails and I'm sure that there are also users here who would like to post some things semi-anonymously. Whether this option actually gets used would depend a ton on the defaults and how this choice is presented visually.

This is associated with a risk of anonymity breaking at some point because of a bug. Measures that guard against this risk in the source code and tests can be taken, but the claim that they won't bitrot and get replaced with something less reliable can't be made legible.

The purpose isn't to have 100% security - it's about being able to post with a bit more obscurity than is currently possible, without the headache of managing multiple accounts.

A search engine could still index you if they're smart, by following the link. I'm not an expert but the best option is probably just politely requesting search engines to not index through robots.txt. Bad actors who write scripts or search engines ignoring these can't be helped.

Creating a private community that respects privacy norms is a good way to go. Karma seems a decent metric for membership. Tying privileges to karma tends to gamify it though, which has side effects. Even honest users will become more likely to desire karma, and post more to get it. Which is good for site engagement, but might also risk lowering quality of the site. I personally like the lack of gamification and addictive potential of this website. All in all, the gamification discussion needs to be had in a broader context than just this one feature.

And to be very honest the anonymity discussion would be cool to have in broader context as well. Can we come up with solutions that work across the internet, not just on LessWrong?

The only way to achieve that would be to prevent outside search engines from indexing posts. Otherwise people can always use Google search (or whatever) to find what you've written. And that's probably the first way that a lot of people search.

As described, a Google search could find the text of the post, but it wouldn't be associated with the author's name. You'd find it searching for "tabs vs. spaces" but not "Yair Halberstadt".

OK, I see. So it would be "click here to find author". Sorry about the error.