by Paul Alan Levy
Over at Internet Daily’s Policy Blog, Wendy Davis brings us news that the Montana Standard, the daily paper in Butte Montana, is retroactively changing its policy for the posting of online comments to stories on its web site. The current policy, which will apparently continue in effect until January 1, allows users to register either using their Facebook accounts or, at the user’s option, registering “only with us” by providing their first and last names and an email address, as well as selecting a password and a “screenname”; according to the registration page, “This is the name that will be displayed next to your photo for comments, blog posts, and more. Choose wisely!” As of January 1, however, comments will be posted under the users’ real first and last names.
The kicker here is that the change is retroactive. Apparently unwilling to part with the wealth of comments that are already posted on its web site under the old policy, but also, apparently, unwilling to configure its software so that comments posted before the new policy is implemented remain under the chosen screen names, the Standard announces that past comments will suddenly appear using the users’ real names unless users contact the paper no later than December 26 to ask that their comments be removed.
Should Anonymous Comments Be Forbidden?
The decision to demand the use of actual names instead of screen names in online comment systems has long been debated – although I tend to agree with those who urge that anonymous comments should be allowed, many mainstream media outfits have worried that the proliferation of vile comments may deter members of the community whose patronage the outfits most value to stay away from their web sites, and they value that traffic more than they worry about the loss of candid comments from members of the public who face retaliation from being identified with their disclosures or opinions. These concerns raise policy decisions that responsible hosts of online content must address (note that this is a very different question from whether a court should enforce a subpoena to compel disclosure of an online speaker’s name).
To be sure, it is easier for specialized blogs with a relatively limited audience. The comments sections that follow stories on many newspapers’ web sites can get pretty vicious, and mindless – for example, it is rarely worth looking at the comments section at my hometown newspaper, the Washington Post. One of my favorite free speech blogs, the Volokh Conspiracy, used to have an excellent comment section that has gained some of the unpleasant features to which Washington Post readers have long been accustomed since the blog moved under the Washington Post’s mantle. But at newspapers where the digital team takes the time to engage in genuine moderation of comments, such as at the New York Times, it is apparent that even in forums that allow pseudonymous commenting, media with a mass audience can enjoy rational discussion among commenters.
The Standard’s editor, David McCumber, told Davis that its staff “moderates posts, [but] it still receives ‘a lot of comments that are very negative in nature about individuals”; its story on its new policy insists that comments “will still be moderated for abusive comments.” It is not at all clear to me why the Standard can’t moderate as effectively as the Times. Regrettably, McCumber did not return my call asking about issues with its new policy.
The Perils of Retroactivity
The Standard’s retroactive application of its real name policy seems to me highly irresponsible. You can easily imagine a newspaper deciding that is not going to rely on anonymous sources in its news stories – certainly there have been media entities that have claimed to have adopted such policies. But can you imagine a paper doing so retroactively, leaving its stories online that were previously sources anonymously but replacing such categories as “inside source” with the name of a whistleblower, or replacing “highly placed official” with the name of the conniving government official speaking “candidly” about his internal adversaries under cover of source protection? “I’m sorry, Deep Throat, we have decided to tell Nixon and his henchmen who you really are.” You could have a number of unhappy sources, not to speak of some dead ones where the sources live abroad in a society or culture where dissent is not tolerated. The source’s life could be in danger even if the source lives inside the United States, if the source was talking about the Crips, or MS-13, or some militia group.
The Standard’s editor told Davis that it is publishing notice of its new policy, including the retroactive application, in both its print editions and web site, and that it “is sending emails to prior commenters, when it has valid email addresses.” (Although as of today, when I looked at the page where the site’s users register to be allowed to comment, there was no notice of any impending policy; to the contrary, the site still promises that the screen name “is the name that will be displayed next . . . for comments, blog posts, and more. Choose wisely!”) But depending on how long it has been since the Standard started accepting registrations, it is quite possible that users may have changed their email addresses, or have moved on to a new email address without ever canceling the old one, and hence they might not see the Standard’s notice. And it is also quite possible that some of the commenters may have made comments that place their economic or even physical security at risk from the individuals or companies that they criticized in online comments. Or, their comments might have revealed something about their own experiences or past conduct that they were willing to share with the public anonymously, making a valuable contribution to a discussion, but would never have been willing to provide had they known that their own names would be attached. The Standard could be putting livelihoods and more at risk through its retroactive changes.
Moreover, although I cannot be sure because I don’t know how the Standard’s new system will operate (my effort to reach the newspaper’s editor with questions was unsuccessful), I ran a test that suggests to me that the Standard’s new policy might not work quite as it intends. I was able to register with a completely invented name, in which I provided a real email address but no other truthful information in the various boxes on the registration page. The comment I posted is the only one that was posted on November 23, 2015 – it appears with the screen name “notmyrealname.” As a further test, I registered again today, again providing false information throughout the registration process, but this time the “real name” I provided was the name of the Standard’s editor, David McCumber, and the street address that I provided was the Standard’s own address. The comment duly appeared on the paper’s web site a few minutes later – it is there under the screen name “NotReallytheEditor.” So, presumably, this comment will appear on January 1 as having been posted by David McCumber.
Now, the Standard’s story on its new policy asserts, “we will do our best to confirm that commenters are registered under their real names,” so McCumber himself is probably safe from being identified with my comment on its web site — the staff will recognize his name and figure out the spoof. But I wonder how effective the paper will be at catching other spoofs — and if it is willing to devote quality staff time to that endeavor, why not just engage in more effective moderation of pseudonymous comments?
It seems to me that the Standard might well want to rethink its retroactivity policy, because a whole passel of comments might end up being falsely attributed on its web site to people who would be horrified at being associated with comments supposedly in their own names.