Montana Standard Will Honor Its Previous Commitments to User Privacy

by Paul Alan Levy

Last month I criticized a Butte, Montana newspaper which, having decided to switch on January 1, 2016, from a commenting system that allowed users to choose pseudonyms to one that will demand the publishing of real names, announced that the “real names” of those who had previously commented using pseudonyms would be placed retroactively on all comments posted before that date, unless users contacted the Montana Standard to ask to have their comments removed.  I argued that the imposition of such a retroactive, opt-out disclosure was an outrageous betrayal of trust; I also pointed out some flaws in the way it operated its real-name system.  As criticism spread across the blogosphere, it became apparently that the retroactive change might even create liability for breach of contract because its Privacy Policy promised (and still promises) users that if the privacy policy loosens, the company would not use information acquired under the current terms in the new, looser way.

I am pleased to note (thanks to Wendy Davis for reporting on this change) that the Montana Standard has abandoned its plan to out anonymous speakers by default, but rather to delete their comments by default.   The announcement of the new approach did not acknowledge the potential for liability, but acknowledged only that "such a change would not be fair to those who are either unaware of the pending change or have not contacted us." 

It is too just bad that the Lee Enterprises newspaper chain was unable or unwilling to configure its software in a way that let the Standard change its policy about anonymous commenting while leaving existing comments online.   Indeed, in testing the system for posting comments, I found that it is still possible to register for posting without giving a genuine real name (note the fifth comment on the article, which I posted under the pseudonym "Testing the new system").  So it may well be the commenters who are truly intent on concealing their identity will still be able to do so.  It remains to be seen how the system will work after the changes go into effect on January 1.

I gather that the Standard considered a switch to Facebook commenting, but rejected that alternative as even worse than what it is doing (for example, because connection to Facebook implicates even greater privacy problems, as well as more effective traceability) and I certainly share that concern.

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