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Tuesday, November 24, 2015



It seems like a big decision to make on a belief. I don't disagree that there is some evidence that over the short term you might see some change.

In 2007 the South Korean government implemented a real name policy for the entire country in an effort to curb malicious comments online that had led, in cases, to people committing suicide (notably a celebrity).

Research presented by Cho and Kim in 2012 (Empirical Analysis of Online Anonymity and User Behaviors: the Impact of Real Name Policy) found that there was a change in the language used in online forums following the change. However, the language they measured was that targeting political figures and this period also saw a change of president (2008) and a crackdown on media freedom and the arrest of government opponents, which could account for a change in online speech. Further, there were still cases reported of suicide due to online harassment, including celebrities.

In 2012 the South Korean Constitutional Court ruled Law requiring the use of real names online was unconstitutional. The court unanimously decided that the law violated people's freedom of speech.

"The system does not seem to have been beneficial to the public. Despite the enforcement of the system, the number of illegal or malicious postings online has not decreased," the court said in its verdict.(http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2012/08/117_118115.html)

The end result of the exercise was that over a period of 5 years, even in an atmosphere of tight social controls and a fierce government effort the use of a real name system had no impact on the amount of harm caused by online speech. You might push the speech elsewhere, but that is not a control in the online environment (i.e. there will still be victims, and they will still be in your community).

Thank you to Mr. Levy for the article and for Mr. McCumber for his efforts to engage with those online to find a solution that is workable. Perhaps now that you definitely have their attention and have brought the problem to light you and your community can work to a solution together. I hope that you find a model that works both in terms of cost and efficacy.


McKinley Morganfield

This is worth discussing, especially the editor's claim that software requires exposing old messages.

Eugene Volokh reports at the Washington Post that in a stunning policy shift, The Montana Standard, a daily newspaper in Butte, has decided to expose the real names of everyone who ever placed an anonymous comment on the paper's web site.

Past comments are to re-appear with the poster's real name, unless the paper is contacted by December 26 to ask that one's comments be removed.

In a Nov. 12 editorial, the editor said, "We have encountered consistent difficulty with posts that exceed the bounds of civil discourse — as have many sites where comments from anonymous posters are allowed." [True for every site but others aren't doing what he is. They delete egregious posts.]

"This is the end of open and honest comments on this site," wrote user BGF. "It is easy to put your name to your comments if you are retired. But it is another thing altogether if you have to worry about upsetting your peers and bosses at work."

The newspaper editor, David McCumber, blatantly lying? claimed he extensively investigated configuring the newspaper's software to authenticate only new comments, not change old ones. He claims "content-management software experts" told him it's not possible to separate newly arriving comments from archived ones.

Perhaps suggesting what is at the bottom of this, McCumber said "When a relatively small city is at the center of your market, just about everybody commented about is known, and the anonymous comments sting."

IOW, he's been criticized, friends and pol pals and major advertisers have been criticized, and they want to know who did it, and make them stop.

Noah Callaway

This seems like a pretty clear violation of their privacy policy (as Mr. Volokh has noted: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/11/25/montana-standard-newspaper-plans-to-retroactively-unmask-anonymous-commenters/). What are the possible repercussions for such a violation of a privacy policy. The FTC claims to be able to enforce compliance with such policies (https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/protecting-consumer-privacy/enforcing-privacy-promises), but do they have any teeth? Would anonymous comments on the MT Standard be within their rights to file a complaint with the FTC?


It is certainly telling that despite close to 200 comments on the two articles on the MTStandard that address this change, Mr. McCumber has not engaged with the commenting community, nor has he taken questions from those posted and addressed them.

He has, however, answered criticism on the MTCowgirl blog and this one - very quickly, too. Which goes to show me at least that despite his assertion the change is about building a better community - he hasn't bothered to engage with that very community, 99% of whom are against this policy, on his own paper.

I also have never changed my email and I never received an email informing me of the change, so I suspect there are going to be many, many more out there and members of the Butte community will spend many hours reading over the comments to see who said what and when. It is winter after all, and not much else to do.

Adam Scales

Dear Mr. McCumber:

Like most people reading this today, I'd never heard of your paper and don't imagine I'll be commenting on your website anytime soon. I have to say, though, that your argument strikes me as absurd.

I don't even like internet anonymity that much (though I've taken advantage of it when convenient), but changing the rules midway is difficult to justify. How many of your readers must plausibly worry about employer retaliation for you to recognize it as significant? If even one formerly anonymous commenter had that experience as a result of relying on your newspaper's shortly-to-be-abandoned promise, how would you ask us to evaluate the fairness of that?

You have an alternative. You could remove all comments prior to December 26, and instantiate the new policy going forward. The archival value of comments is real, but limited. They provide a snapshot of the community's contemporaneous reaction to news, and this would indeed be lost to the general public. However, their larger value lies in the immediate conversation comments provide, as members of the public refine, adjust or (often) intensify their views through dialogue. That value has already been provided, and past comments could be eliminated without impairing it.

Finally - and this is one for the techies out there - it is probably possible to cache your old pages (which the Internet Wayback Machine already does) so as to preserve both the old comments and their anonymity. That would serve your readers well, but you less well - since this might limit your ability to smoothly integrate your historical pages into your current commercial efforts. Possibly, that would be too much to ask of you - except that you gave your word to your readers that they would remain anonymous.

Adam Scales

David McCumber

A few things in response to your very thoughtful, well-written blog post about our commenting decision:

It is not that I am “unwilling to configure our software so that comments posted before the new policy is implemented remain under chosen screen names.” I extensively investigated that possibility and was unfortunately told by our content-management software experts that such a configuration is impossible.

Based on that, I am trying to do what is most equitable to all of our readers.

I believe that some of our challenges here are unique to community journalists. When a relatively small city is at the center of your market, just about everybody commented about is known, and the anonymous comments sting. I personally believe that very few of our readers are concerned about employers’ retaliation; I think that instead the relatively few posters who consistently offer destructive and noxious comments enjoy the cloak of anonymity in order to avoid community accountability. I believe that our site is and should be a community meeting place, and as such, rules of conduct should apply.

That said, I am as ardent a believer in free speech as you are likely to find in this profession. I also believe in transparency and accountability.

Thanks very much for your consideration of these points.

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