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?