August 8, 2008

More Problems With Anonymity

This is a strange one: A newspaper outs a politician who posted many anonymous comments on the paper’s site using multiple usernames. Dan Kennedy asks the right question: “Even if you grant that what Donahue did was stupid, was it ethical for the Eagle-Tribune to expose him?”

This is why newspapers must have written policies regarding anonymity. I believe offering it as an option is the right thing to do. But I also think that newspapers must exercise some control.

Newspapers should offer clear statements of how much privacy users actually have in forums/comments and under what circumstances they may lose anonymity. The ethical problem here isn’t caused by outing the politician, it’s caused by not having a written policy that warns users that anonymity may not be protected under certain circumstances. The Eagle-Tribune privacy statement doesn’t cover anonymity in regard to online posting. It is typical of the kind of consumer protections routinely offered by those who do business online.

Questions: Do consumer protections imply participant protections? Should we draw such a distinction? Do politicians or other public figures have reduced privacy rights online?

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4 Responses

  1. Jason 

    I guess to me it comes down to who owns the site. There’s no law that even if you allow anonymous comments you have to hide that person’s identity. I always assume when I leave a comment that it’s going to be used by the owner of the site. (Of course, I don’t post anonymously, either.)

    38 accounts? That’s bordering on intentional deception. Those forums could help start to sway some public opinion much like talk radio.

  2. acline 

    Jason… To an extent I agree with you. I think news organizations ought to hold themselves to high standards. Like you, I prefer to be open about who I am. It’s worked well for you and for me.

  3. > Do consumer protections imply participant protections?

    Not if the goal of the participant is to hoodwink the consumers.

  4. Tim 

    Interesting case. I do think that bloggers and forums that allow comments should post a comment policy and consider a Terms of Use.

    The loss of anonymity can easily be addressed for sock-puppetry, astroturfing, impersonation, etc., along with banning, posting IP addresses and/or legal action.

    I do think this is part of the larger question of online ethics and online expectations of bloggers v. journalists.