Newspaper announces plan to reveal commenters' real names retroactively

Internet trolls love comment sections because they can be as awful as they want while hiding behind a digital mask of anonymity. But now one newspaper is changing its policy so that commenters' names are exposed, both going forward and retroactively. This, predictably, has a lot of people up in arms.

The Montana Standard has always required users to register with the site by providing their real names. Once commenters are through that process, though, they can use a screen name when they post comments (this is fairly standard stuff). As of Jan. 1, 2016, the Butte, Montana-based newspaper is making all comments, going back years, appear with attributions to commenters' real names.

It’s one thing to tell users that all their future comments will be attached to their real names. But is it fair to suddenly unmask people who believed they were posting anonymously? The Washington Post quotes Paul Levy, of the Public Citizen Consumer Law & Policy Blog, who expressed concern about how this might imperil some long-term users:

[I]t is...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.

The Post also points out that the newspaper’s privacy policy explicitly states (or has until now) that commenter identities are protected. The site’s policy states that users must register with their real name to post “story comments,” among other things, but that, “We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information.” A bit further down, it adds, “Of course, our use of information gathered while the current policy is in effect will always be consistent with the current policy, even if we change that policy later.”

David McCumber, an editor at the Standard, emailed a statement to the Washington Post. He says he “extensively investigated that possibility” that previous comments could be omitted from the change, but that “content-management software experts [told him] 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.

There’s a lengthy comment reaction thread to the policy change on the Montana Standard site. Suffice it to say, most people, understandably and perhaps justifiably, aren’t very happy.

(h/t Washington Post)