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On the Internet, everyone may find you're a dog

Anonymity on the Web may seem attractive, but how you use it raises interesting ethical dilemmas.

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On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog, as a famous New Yorker cartoon once said. Nobody knows when you're the CEO of a big company, either, or a popular doctor, or a columnist posting comments on his or her own writings – if you're writing under an assumed name. And while anonymity can be an attractive feature of the Internet, how and when you use it raises some interesting ethical questions.

In particular, is it OK for a prominent public figure to anonymously criticize his critics, or anonymously promote his or her company?

Three recent cases illustrate this point. Last week, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, the natural foods supermarket, was exposed as "rahodeb," a frequent poster in the Yahoo! finance message boards for years. When he wasn't anonymously touting his own company in the postings, he was often attacking his main competition, Wild Oats. And now that Whole Foods is trying to buy Wild Oats, his anonymous postings have come back to haunt him.

Late Friday, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced an "informal investigation" into rahodeb's postings to see if any laws had been broken. But even if no laws were broken, many business experts have raised questions about the ethics of Mr. Mackey's actions, and more than a few say it has damaged both him and his company.

In another example of anonymous posting gone bad, a well-known Boston pediatrician's penchant for anonymous blogging produced what The Boston Globe referred to in May as a "Perry Mason moment." Under cross examination in a malpractice trial in which he was the defendant, Dr. Robert P. Lindeman admitted that he was the blogger known as "flea." Most jurors had no idea why such information was important and probably ignored it.


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