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If It's Newsworthy, Should A Website Reveal A Previously Pseudononymous Poster?

from the ethical-dilemma dept

Remember the debate about whether or not anonymous commenters were good or evil? Well, let's take it up a notch. The Cleveland Plain Dealer -- who amusingly just recently told its reporters they needed to engage more in the comments on their stories -- had a persistent commenter, who was a bit vocal, and at times mean. After she posted a comment questioning the mental state of a relative of a reporter, the newspaper decided to look into who was behind the comments, and realized that it is a high profile local judge, who has actually been in the news a lot lately. The judge's daughter tried to claim credit for the posts, but apparently there's some evidence that suggests the judge made many, if not all, of the comments (it was her email address, and apparently it's clear that many of the comments came from her work computer). Some of the comments even came on cases she was involved in. Of course, it's also worth noting that she had threatened a reporter from the Plain Dealer with jailtime if he didn't reveal his source for a story (and, yes, this is why we need a strong journalism shield law), so the Plain Dealer may be seen as having an axe to grind.

Still this raises a bunch of questions that lots of sites struggle with. We've often wondered about it ourselves, as there are times when it's obvious who a commenter is -- and even here on Techdirt we've had high level execs pseudononymously comment (while doing little to hide their real identity) -- even at times about issues they were involved in. And, to some extent, those situations seem newsworthy -- though not everyone would agree. Along those lines, we've sometimes pointed out that two commenters may be the same person, though never revealing who they actually are in real life. But, again, does that reach an ethical standard? Of course, a few months ago, there were similar concerns when the online editor at StlToday.com called the boss of a commenter, leading the commenter to resign. But that was purely vindictive, and of no journalistic significance.

It's easy to just say that no publication should ever reveal such info -- but if it has journalistic value, and the commenter has done little to hide their actual identity, it certainly reaches a gray area. I can see the arguments on both sides of this issue. In the end, I don't think it's a good idea to "out" commenters' true identities, but if there is journalistic value in the information, rather than just doing it out of spite or anger, I don't think it's as clear cut as some are making it out to be.


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  1.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 1:53pm

    Yes it is...

    "In the end, I don't think it's a good idea to "out" commenters' true identities, but if there is journalistic value in the information, rather than just doing it out of spite or anger, I don't think it's as clear cut as some are making it out to be."

    Yes, it is clear cut: don't out anonymous commentors. Ever. Even if their hiding behind anonymity is INFURIATING, or even if it would cast their comments and their views on the story into a whole new light of understanding, even then don't do it.

    Ultimately, like the market works out business issues on their own, the community will play the same role. It's a little more difficult with online commentors because even with a name, who says the person really is who they say they are (from the community's stand point, I mean), but that can be thoughtfully mitigated.

    Case in point: Mark Cuban. I have philosophical differences in thought compared to Mark, but the comments on this site that purported to be from him were still thoughtful, insightful, and reasonable, even when I disagreed with him. By cowboying up and claiming his own words, they lended weight and credence in my mind.

    I might not agree with him on all or most things, and dear God, get out of the basektball business for Christ's sake, but his willingness to comment publically in a way that takes ownership of those words makes me respect those comments a hell of a lot more than I would have had they been anonymous.

     

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  2.  
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    A Dan (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:13pm

    Re: Yes it is...

    I'm inclined to agree with you. But what do you think about astroturfing review sites?

     

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  3.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:17pm

    Re: Yes it is...

    Yes, it is clear cut: don't out anonymous commentors. Ever.

    Ok, let me ask you a question: what if you're doing an investigative report on someone who was committing fraud.

    Aren't you "outing" someone who was previously "anonymous"?

    That's a case where the outing is newsworthy. Couldn't you make the argument that the same applies to comments? Or should an investigative report never name people?

     

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  4.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:18pm

    Re: Re: Yes it is...

    "I'm inclined to agree with you. But what do you think about astroturfing review sites?"

    A fair question, but one which I think is easily answered by everything I wrote above. I believe that attempts at astroturfing are the very reason that the comment "Obvious xxxx is obvious" is in so much use.

    The way I see it is simple, it's a math equation. Which is greater?

    A. An astroturfer's ability to write convincingly enough that his/her astroturf is regarded as a legitimate review

    or

    B. The average community member's ability to discern a legitimate review from and astroturf attempt

    As long as B > A, no worries....

     

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  5.  
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    Just Another Moron in a Hurry (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:23pm

    Re: Re: Yes it is...

    A website that offers the ability to post anonymously should never reveal one of its own posters who has chosen to make use of that ability. They have the responsibility to make the effort to protect the posters anonymity in the same way that a reporter has a responsibility to protect the identity of their sources.

    However, if they are discovered by a third-party (perhaps some other investigative reporter?) without the assistance of the website, and that third-party reveals the poster's identity, the website is off the hook.

     

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  6.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:23pm

    Re: Re: Yes it is...

    "Ok, let me ask you a question: what if you're doing an investigative report on someone who was committing fraud."

    Clarification request: Are you, the investigative reporter, in any way engaged with the alleged defrauder on a personal or professional basis that doesn't involve the alleged fraud?

    Because really, that's what you're doing when you're outing an anonymous commentor. It isn't some person committing a heinous act that you're investigating from outside the situation. This would be somebody that is attempting to engage with you on your site, in a way that you provide. To then out that person would seem to me to just BEG for chilling effects.

    In the case of the judge, the site/paper/whatever can keep reporting on her, even if she is attempting to comment anonymously. But why out her? What benefit does that provide that isn't overridden by the chilling effect?

    If she's committing a crime or a engaging in a conflict of interest by commenting certain things on the site, wouldn't it be better to just alert the proper authorities, and let THEM out her?

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:26pm

    Re: Re: Yes it is...

    "Aren't you "outing" someone who was previously "anonymous"?"

    Let me attempt to make the distinction more simplistic:

    Outing somebody committing fraud isn't the same because there is no expectation of privacy. If your site offers anonymous commenting with the expectation that you'll respect that anonymity, you shouldn't out them on that site. Ever. Not to the community.

    Even if the commentor threatens you, you alert the authorities and let THEM do the outing....

     

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  8.  
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    Janet, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:31pm

    Keep 'em anonymous ...

    Keep 'em anonymous, as tough as that is to do sometimes. When you "out" one, the other (more innocent) ones will begin to question your motives and also their reasoning for hanging around your website.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:33pm

    Here's a test: if the commenter lies about who they are, it's okay to out them, otherwise no.

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:36pm

    Re:

    I am Lord Dark Helmet, keeper of the Schwartz and player with dolls. Except that I'm not, so I should be outed?

    Which lies are worthy of outing? How do you account for humor? Why does Mr. Coffee look so much like Mr. Radar?

    These and other questions, after a word from our sponsors....

     

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  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:38pm

    http://2jk.org/english/?p=197

    Israel’s Supreme Court rules that no legal procedure is available to reveal anonymous commenters.

     

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  12.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:42pm

    Re:

    Israel’s Supreme Court rules that no legal procedure is available to reveal anonymous commenters.


    Sure, for legal demands. But that has no impact on whether or not a site decides to out them themselves...

     

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  13.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:43pm

    Re: Re: Re: Yes it is...

    Clarification request: Are you, the investigative reporter, in any way engaged with the alleged defrauder on a personal or professional basis that doesn't involve the alleged fraud?

    If the answer is yes, isn't that just whistleblowing?

    In the case of the judge, the site/paper/whatever can keep reporting on her, even if she is attempting to comment anonymously. But why out her? What benefit does that provide that isn't overridden by the chilling effect?

    I mostly agree with you, but I can see cases where it could be otherwise.

    What if, for example, someone is commenting on a lawsuit in which they are playing a part -- and their comments could impact the outcome of the case? Isn't it just whistleblowing to out them?

     

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    Beta, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:47pm

    How about this:

    If you are able to discover someone's identity, then you should treat that information according to your conscience, whether it's an pseudonymous commenter, a masked bank robber, or a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. These examples are different situations with different ethical rules, and a lot may depend on who you are and how you got the information: a catholic priest who hears the bank robber's confession must keep mum. A friend can tell you about being an alcoholic openly or in confidence.

    I would argue that the people running the forum -- and only those people -- have a special obligation not to reveal the commenter's identity. After that, it's a matter of conscience.

     

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    Better OK, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:49pm

    Judge is supposed to be held to a higher standard.

    The Judge probably broke all kinds of laws and ethical rules by commenting on a current case. If you withhold information, are you an accessory to the crime? Misbehaving Judges damage the judicial system for all of us. Lately there has been several stories about judges admonishing juries to not email, blog or do their own research on the case. Judges are supposed to be held to a higher standard.

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:50pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Yes it is...

    "What if, for example, someone is commenting on a lawsuit in which they are playing a part -- and their comments could impact the outcome of the case? Isn't it just whistleblowing to out them?"

    Hmm, maybe I'm making too fine a distinction, but to me you do as I suggested: alert they authorities to a crime (as I believe you're obligated to do anyway), and let THEM out the person. To me that isn't the same as outing them to the community via the site.

    If it turned out, for instance, that I was someone involved in uploading the Viacom crap to YouTube, and I came here commenting on the stories anonymously while also threatening you physically if you continued to report on it, you could out me to the community to completely make me look like a tool. But instead of doing that, report the threat, the cops make an arrest that is public, and then report on THAT.

    I just don't see the benefit of outing the person to the community, which is entirely different than "outing" them to the police....

     

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  17.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:54pm

    If a site offers anonymous comments and then makes a habit of outing anonymous commentors then what is point of allowing anonymous comments?

    Outing anonymous commentors is evil. You either allow anonymous comments or you don't. I don't see how you can have it both ways.

     

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  18.  
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    Beta, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 2:54pm

    Re: Yes it is...

    What if, for example, someone is commenting on a lawsuit in which they are playing a part -- and their comments could impact the outcome of the case? Isn't it just whistleblowing to out them?

    It's hard to imagine how that could happen unless the jury is made up of complete idiots. I won't speculate on how common that is, but revealing one piece of information on a blog won't save a flock of idiots being bombarded by two opposing teams of professional spin doctors.

     

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  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 3:09pm

    Re: Re:

    You're right! It's just nice to see, for the time being, that a governmental entity has little power, legally and at least in Israel, to out an anonymous coward.

    I actually don't mind if a site's operator outs an anonymous coward like myself, so long as the operator tries to justify the outing to the rest of the site's community.

    I just love anonymity!

     

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  20.  
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    taoareyou (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 3:10pm

    If a site ever chooses to out an anonymous commenter, they can no longer claim to allow anonymous comments. They should be required to call them "identity hidden for now" comments.

     

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  21.  
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    Yakko Warner, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 3:11pm

    Re: Re:

    Why does Mr. Coffee look so much like Mr. Radar?

    Because you always have coffee before you watch radar. Everyone knows that.

     

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  22.  
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    Mike Masnick (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 3:16pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Yes it is...

    Hmm, maybe I'm making too fine a distinction, but to me you do as I suggested: alert they authorities to a crime (as I believe you're obligated to do anyway), and let THEM out the person. To me that isn't the same as outing them to the community via the site.

    So Woodward and Bernstein should have just alerted the police to what happened at Watergate?

    :)

    Playing devil's advocate here...

     

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  23.  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 3:18pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Yes it is...

    I'm with DH.

    If a website offers a method of posting "anonymous" comments, then the site has entered into a pact, through it's own methods and tools, to keep that user anonymous. A deal has been struck, with as good as a handshake to seal it.

    To then "out" the commenter is a breach of that pact. However, any other third party is free to try to investigate and out the commenter, but they never entered into a pact to keep that person incognito.

    Like an attorney, you have "privileged information". You may not be legally obliged to keep it mum, but I think the ethics suggest so.

    The website should take basic measures to keep the identity secure. If the website gets a warrant, only then can they be off the hook.

    I think, so far, Techdirt has handled it well. Noting when a commenter is "from the industry", has a biased agenda, or has other pseudonymous handles. This is all useful, without identifying them individually.

     

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  24.  
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    Reason2Bitch (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 3:19pm

    racist

    you guys are supporting her outing only because she is black and a woman.

     

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  25.  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 3:20pm

    Re:

    Um...isn't any pseudonym a lie?

     

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  26.  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 3:23pm

    What I'd like to see is a better way of identifying unique Anonymous Cowards here at Techdirt.

    I'd like to see a random 3-digit number assigned, like "Anonymous Coward-183", and you could map that to the IP address. There would be very little risk of "outing" by mistake, but we would at least be able to follow the comment debates - including those that span multiple articles.

    Sure, it could be gamed if someone wanted to type in a different handle for each comment...which is also fine.

     

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  27.  
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    Dark Helmet (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 4:12pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Yes it is...

    "So Woodward and Bernstein should have just alerted the police to what happened at Watergate?

    :)

    Playing devil's advocate here..."

    Right analogy, wrong conclusion. The anonymous commenter in that situation was Deep Throat, who you'll notice Woodword and Bernstein DIDN'T out, for all the reasons I already mentioned...

     

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  28.  
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    foobar, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 4:35pm

    Re: Re: Yes it is...

    I don't think anyone's arguing that all anonymity should be sacrosanct, just that of commenters.

    The identity of Deep Throat was certainly newsworthy, but it would have been wildly inappropriate for Woodward and Bernstein to publish it.

     

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  29.  
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    Courage The Cowardly Commenter LoL, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 5:17pm

    2 Cents

    My knee jerk reaction is no they shouldn't have done that.

    Even if there is a valid reason to do it, anonymity has more advantages then no anonymity, breaking that even for something that might be relevant or important still not outweigh the benefits for society of having the "anonymity thing". People will always do something that is objectionable to somebody else or even against the law there are ways to go after the concept of bad people agreed inside any society, anonymity is just one layer and can be bypassed because to commit something is to have to do it and society should be preoccupied with repeat offenders and not casual ones. Yes judges also get things wrong they are people too, anonymity is the way people have to express other facets of their being and that is a healthy thing to do for the most part, there are black corners but they don't represent the majority. We all do things that we like to keep private, no one in the world can fallow all the rules all the time, people need shelter from those laws and scrutiny by others somewhere.

    So even if it is a judge or a janitor no one should out any anonymous. We put our work face on one side and have a private face on the other, trying to merge the 2 will lead to conflicts(physical, moral and verbal) I don't see nothing good coming out of that.

     

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  30.  
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    Courage The Cowardly Commenter LoL, Mar 29th, 2010 @ 5:19pm

    2 Cents

    Anonymity is a mechanism that individuals inside a group use to coup with the harsh realities of many different points of views, we are not ants even though we can behave like them in some aspects.

     

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  31.  
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    BearGriz72 (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 5:20pm

    Re:

    Mike said they were looking into doing something like that a while back. (Don't have time to look it up right now) I could go both ways on the idea, but my identity is not exactly a secret if you look hard enough.

     

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  32.  
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    vivaelamor (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 5:54pm

    Privacy policy & user agreement

    Isn't this a clear breach of their privacy policy? Perhaps technically they can claim the user agreement was breached and might use that as a get-out, but there seems to be no express terms stating you waive your privacy if you breach the user agreement; which would be a pretty awful precedent anyway as the terms are broad enough to be breached by mentioning breasts.

    I'm all in favour of sites having the freedom to set their own privacy policies as long as they aren't inclined to breach the policy at anything less than court intervention.

     

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  33.  
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    vivaelamor (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 6:33pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Yes it is...

    "What if, for example, someone is commenting on a lawsuit in which they are playing a part -- and their comments could impact the outcome of the case? Isn't it just whistleblowing to out them?"

    Whistleblowing doesn't usually involve snooping on people. Usually whistleblowers are those privy to the wrongdoings who would otherwise be silent out of deference to those higher up in an organisation. As was the case with Watergate, there isn't a breach of privacy when information is given freely by those already privy, at that point it is only a breach of trust.

    It is murkier when you are talking about private information that is stumbled across as part of a job but that does not appear to be the case here. If it were then I'd still expect anyone who takes privacy remotely seriously to only release that information if it is clearly unlawful or holds some direct risk of serious harm. Even then they should take due consideration with how they address the problem. For example, coming across illegal images on a computer may justify contacting the authorities but not the local paper.

     

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  34.  
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    taoareyou (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 9:06pm

    Re: Re:

    So every anonymous coward from a public computer or PC/smartphone using a public Wi/Fi could be judged by what others said before them?

     

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  35.  
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    Nick Coghlan (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 10:44pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Yes it is...

    I think Derek summarises it well. By offering anonymous posting, the website is agreeing to respect that anonymity unless other significant obligations take precedence (responding to a legitimate court order being one such obligation).

    Describing a commenter in general terms that are relevant to their credibility (which may be quite appropriate) is a far cry from identifying a specific person (which will almost always be inappropriate).

     

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  36.  
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    Nick Coghlan (profile), Mar 29th, 2010 @ 10:51pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Assuming they only tracked it per article, the chances of a coincidental IP address collision amongst commenters on a single article would be pretty low (such a collision would be far more likely to indicate multiple commenters from a single NAT-using organisation than two unrelated users commenting from the same public network).

    Trying to link anonymous users across multiple articles would be a mistake IMO (because the chances of coincidental collisions rise significantly).

     

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  37.  
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    Ccomp5950 (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 12:38am

    Follow your privacy policy and applicable laws.

    Everything else is an individual decision with plenty of latitude since there are no real laws that grant your commentators anonymity

     

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  38.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 6:34am

    Re: Re: Yes it is...

    I tend to agree with Dark Helmet on this.

    "what if you're doing an investigative report on someone who was committing fraud.

    Aren't you "outing" someone who was previously "anonymous"?"

    But you didn't enter into a contract with them agreeing to keep them anonymous. That's what I see happening with sites that allow anonymous commenting -- there's an agreement between the commenter and the site that their identity will be protected. It may be implicit, but it's very clear to me. Outing them is a breach of trust, and reflects badly on the website.

    If you're investigating someone for fraud, there's no such agreement, so no breach of trust.

    If an anonymous commenter is doing something extreme, such as confessing to violent crimes, say, then I could see reporting them to appropriate authorities and revealing their identity to them, but even then, I wouldn't agree with publicly outing them.

     

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  39.  
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    John Fenderson (profile), Mar 30th, 2010 @ 6:36am

    Re: Judge is supposed to be held to a higher standard.

    "If you withhold information, are you an accessory to the crime?"

    Witholding the information from the public doesn't make you an accessory. Witholding it from the authorities might.

     

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  40.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 30th, 2010 @ 8:43pm

    I believe the problem is that the real issue is that anonymous is not providing information for Mike anymore and quite frankly, provided the information to Mike to make Anonymous happy several times over.

    Are T-Shirt in stock? No.
    Is Mike setting up events? No.

    Indeed, he is a difficult person. Indeed, he's angry at anonymous because he doesn't have anything he can use.

    I'm not trying to insult you. But this very article is very insulting.

     

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  41.  
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    Jerry Leichter, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 4:29am

    Others have hinted at this, but lets make it explicit.

    A) A reporter offers a source anonymity. Who the source is turns out to be highly newsworthy; or it turns out the source is more deeply involved, or is more of a party in some reported dispute, than it initially seems.

    B) A news website offers a comments section allowing anonymity. A poster turns out to be highly newsworthy; or it turns out the source is more deeply involved, or is more of a party in some reported dispute, than it initially seems.

    If you believe the duty to maintain anonymity is different in these two cases, please explain why.

    I can see one distinction between these two cases that might be relevant: In case (A), the reporter retains ultimate discretion about what actually gets published, while in (B) it's the commentators own words. If the web site retains the right - as most do - to remove comments that it finds objectionable, for whatever reason, does your analysis change? What if the web site reviews comments *before* publication, again reserving the right to refuse to publish some?
    -- Jerry

     

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  42.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 31st, 2010 @ 5:37am

    If it's newsworthy, out them. The case of the judge is one example where it should definitely happen. It's a privilege and not to be abused. In the judge's case, I would consider that a definite abuse against impartiality. No way should that be kept secret. A judge should not be engaging in public debate on cases they are involved in. That's way out of order and they deserve everything they get. In such cases, a line has been crossed and I consider it "their own fault". They pushed their little anonymity shield too far and overstepped the line. When you are using your anonymity for poisoning and subversion then you should be outed every time. That's not what the point of 'anonymity' was supposed to be for. The whole idea of it is to protect from oppression, censorship, prejudice and being attacked purely for your beliefs. It's not to provide a shield for little covert operations to distort truth or disseminate propaganda, to twist opinions and lie to people.

    Message boards grant anonymous posting on a certain trust level and abusing that anonymity means that such a trust should no longer be given. It's like free speech, yeah you're entitled to it but not so you can abuse it. Advocating some kind of blanket anonymity for all is crazy imo. It's political correctness gone mad: "oooh we must respect the psycho's rights even though they killed and ate 20 people!!!!" Fuck that! OUT THEM!

     

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  43.  
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    vivaelamor (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 6:38am

    Re:

    "oooh we must respect the psycho's rights even though they killed and ate 20 people!!!!"

    That is why they are called rights, and not maybes.

     

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  44.  
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    Derek Kerton (profile), Mar 31st, 2010 @ 4:26pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    Well, I'm not looking for concrete, certainty of who a person is. The concept is, after all, to have it be anon.

    And I'm not worried too much if two anon cowards show up in comments and look like one person...heck that is what happens EVERY time right now. As said by the comment above, that won't likely happen often.

    I'm just looking for a cheap, quick, and dirty way to make a thread more readable, to see some consistency in a back and forth discussion in a single thread.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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