> english: nyms & names

Nyms, Names and Privacy

Based on a Commentary posted to an article at

Professor Pedro A. D. Rezende
Departament of Computer Science
University of Brasilia
August, 2005

On May 2005 the editor of the Groklaw portal, known in cyberspace as "PJ", suffered a stalking attack on her identity, by a so-called journalist working for one SysCon magazine. In the debate ensued at Groklaw, someone called on PJ:
"You've made yourself a public figure. I think the public is entitled to an interview describing your background".
Another one, implying such entitlement, quotes entries for "public figure" from dictionaries to beg an anwser:
"what other words can better describe PJ's stature"?
Indeed, "public figure" is a good description of PJ's stature. But what is PJ?

Note: my rethorical question is not "who", but "what". My question is framed to explore the issue of how being a public figure can relate to the public being entitled to a background on who's behind "PJ". According to the quoted dictionary of Law, a public figure is a personage. According to Merriam-Webster a public figure is, as a noun, an estimation, an acclaim. Stature, personage, estimation, acclaim, can we find a common root to such categorizations of the PJ thing? ("thing" here meant in syntactical, not derrogatory sense).

Persona, or personal identity. Ultimately, identity. Identity is a byproduct of identification. Identification can be best described, for this discussion, as in computer security: the bundling of relations involving an entity. Thus, a bundle of relations yelds an id-entity.

The concept of  identity can be grasped by combining id, Latin for "it", with entitas, "being". Although this is a possible etiology for the word "identity", embraced by Australian National University professor Roger Clark, it is not the usual one. Merriam-Webster, for instance, states that the word identity is believed to have come from the middle French word identité, from late Latin identidem, a contraction of idem et idem, literally, "same and same".

If an identity describes, defines or fits a social role, it can be tagged by what professor Clark calls a "nym".

A nym common to several identities, in the sense of social roles performable by one and the same entity, is a common name. My civil name (the one in my driver's license) is a common name. My civil name commonly tags my professor, father and brazilian citizen identities, as well as other social roles which my self performs. Civil names serve to bundle various identities which an entity is led to, or choose to, engage in its social life.

But not all nyms are meant to serve as common names. That is to say, not all identity tags are meant to further bundle other social roles performed by the same entity. For example: a pseudo-nym.

If the nature of a given social role allows, linguistics will be able to provide a nym to distinguish and tag that given role. However, whether or not this nym will be effective as pseudonym, that is, able to insulate and restrict its tagging fuction to its designated role, depends on semiological factors: the role's nature and context, the relations bundled into it, the acting entity's intent and behaviour, and how the tagging can be asserted and verified, to name a few. Examples: a username for an account at, such as "PJ", distinguished by its password. An author of novels, publishing under pseudonym, distinguished by his or her literary style.

A pseudonym is good for estabishing an identity for a social role, by and under the control of a performing entity, but difficult to be so kept as the role grows in importance and complexity. Which ammounts to saying, as such role becomes worthy of pseudonymity. This is because, first, the more a role bundles relations the greater the statistical chance of leakage into other roles played by the same entity, and secondly, the more social value this bundling builds, around an otherwise mysterious entity, the more attentive other related entities become, for such leaks. Why this?

Carelessness, indiscretion, social engineering, spying and stalking can render a nym innefective as pseudonym. If a relation leaks across social roles, allowing distinct identities of a common entity to be linked, the knowledge of this link bundles these roles, rendering their identities' nyms semiologically equivalent. In other words, these identity tags become syno-nyms, by which a pseudonym can be rendered innefective as such, if the other nym is a common name, for example. Such leaks are bound to happen because, as said about information societies, knowledge is power. Or, as Joseph Stiglitz says, asymetrical information can aggragate economic value.

Having gone so far as to reach semiology, a view on privacy ensues. For the purpose of this discussion, one can view privacy as the right "to be left alone". Privacy, thus, ammounts to one's control over the possibilities of social roles one plays being commonly bundled and tagged.

Where valued, privacy is not cheaply or safely reached through pseudonymity, for reasons given before. Thus, in societies where privacy is held as valuable, some social acts are allowed by law to be performed anonymously. Someone acting in a way as to avoid his or her identification in so doing acts anonymously. The question of such anonymity being lawful or not, in these cases, depending on the nature and circumstances of the act.

Acting anonymously means deliberately avoiding an identity tag as defined here. That is, avoiding a nym which can enable other entities to distinguish the acting entity, or a determined social role, or even a role most closely bundled to an undetermined actor's motivation to act.

If an entity acting anonymously is named, it would be either by someone else, or by a nym unequiped to distinguish it from others. Unequiped either for being too generic, likely or chosen to colide (such as "John Doe" in lawsuits, or "Anonymous" in username spaces with public password), or for being misleading ("stolen" pseudonyms, or multiple pseudnoyms for the same social role). Either way, anonymity will not effectively tag an identity, in the sense given here: the "name" would be an ano-nym: a non-name.

We are now ready to analyse the SysCon stalking episode. The main questions now seem to be: Why was the journalist so determined to write that piece? Why was SysCon publisher so insensitive to its controversial nature, unable to fathom the likely consequences of publishing it? Why was he so slow to grasp the ethical dimention of the controversy, first blaming what happened on zealotry from the FOSS community? Why such an explosive reaction from some corners of the community, at least in the eyes of some outsiders, like SysCon publisher and a Forbes reporter?

In order to answer these, a prior question begs itself: Do values at stake in a social role depend on values grounded at other roles the same entity plays along? If it seems that the answer is yes, the next question is how, and to what extent? It depends, of course, on the nature of the role, on the context it is played, and on values held by stakeholders in that context, to evaluate their stakes in that role. A stakeholder's perception of an entity's motivation for playing that role, is a good example of one such value at stake. Trials, investigative, legal, investment or trading strategies are examples of roles where these issues matter. These are, ultimately, issues of trust.

Like it or not, knowingly or not, PJ set herself to build a social role at, for, and with Groklaw, which Groklaw diehards regard as historically unique. Groklaw's social role is unprecedented, in its challenge to neutrilize an unparalleled attack on socio-legal rules designed to strike judicial fairness for the US judicial system. The values at stake are enormous, and, besides jurisditional, of two different types: economic and moral.

In the context wherein Groklaw emerged, the values at stake were put at risk by a suicidal gambling strategy, from known and not-so-known stakeholders, bound to despise and downplay one of those two value types, in a context where market fundamentalism is the dominant ideology. Such risk is what appears to have grounded, taking her discourse at face value, PJ's motivation to set up and breed Groklaw's role, through which that despising and downplaying are to be countered. A breed, again, unprecedented, if in no other aspect for its colaborative prowess, putting FOSS ideas and ideals to work at the legal field.

On evaluating the risks drawn upon herself by setting up and breeding Groklaw, PJ decided to prioritize her privacy. She set the nym "Pamela Jones" (of which "PJ" is an acro-nym) to function as a pseudonym for her identity as Groklaw's author and manager. She did so by being vague about whether that name was her "real" (civil, common) name, by being careful not to reveal relations which could leak her Groklaw identity onto her civil identity, and counting on the fact that, if that nym happens to be indeed her common name, hurdles were up for her civil identity to be bundled with her Groklaw identity, for such is a popular, generic common name. Which is to say, a likely homo-nym.

In some sense, I think this was a smart move. She could tender her privacy, while being indirect and vague about running Groklaw under a pseudonym "or not". Regular and careful readers learned to value Groklaw for its solid-rock consistency, cohesiveness, fact-findind and fact-based orientations, and high ground on moral values. FUD-busting at its purest, regarless of the nym status of its author-manager.

And among those readers, those who care more about the moral values at stake found PJ's motivations for setting up and breeding Groklaw to be self-evident. No need to anchor their perception of Groklaw values and reliability on other roles the person behind the PJ acronym may play in her social life, given the suicidal gambling adventure in the judicial landscape which brought it up and bread its role, and brought eventually us into reading this article.

Those readers, the ones who care more about the moral values at stake in the SCO saga, can respect PJ's risk evaluation, prizing her privacy over her fame. Those readers can figure why a background knowledge of her other roles in social life is not as important as her life itself. They can fathom why staying alive could be the main value at stake across the roles she plays in life, after Groklaw.

On the other hand, those who believe the two deaths at the SCO camp, as of May 2005, were "mere suicides", those who trust that money talks louder than morals, can not understand what all this fuss from the FOSS camp is about. They can not fathom the gravity of that stalking on PJ's privacy, in the face of those mysterious deaths. They can be hypocrites while believing they are being smart.

At this point, any diffusion of fame can be good at most to satisfy unconsciously motivated curiosities in others, to pump page hits counts in web sites, or to push FUD into higher levels of sophistry. Like by those readers who, caring more for the gambler's money at stake, suggest that pseudonymity has to do, or may be perceived as having to do, with morally objectionalble facts to be hidden.

Whereas if "Pamela Jones" is PJ's real common name, the stakes are raised. If "Pamela Jones", the Groklaw author-manager's pseudonym, happens to be a homonym of the civil name of the person behind it, the stalking could be whitewashed for the clueless. Sold as "investigative reporting" about a "mere blogger", as done by that irresponsible reporter for SysCon, despite its uncertainty from the extent that such a nym is a popular civil name.

Regardless of how one evaluate risks, if consistently with the status chosen for the nym of her Groklaw author-manager's identity, the public figure stature of "PJ" can very well remain solely with that identity. No need to percolate to the entity behind it, if for no other reason for the sake of her privacy and safety. This is, again, an issue of trust only the entity itself can ultimately avail.

PJ is entitled to prize a safer life before a larger fame, or ahead of a sphinx riddle, pushed by entities seeking to relate with her for unconsious or immature motivations. Like seven year olds demanding to know Santa Claus' background.