News Sites Rethink Anonymous Online Comments

New York Times – Technology
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA

From the start, Internet users have taken for granted that the territory was both a free-for-all and a digital disguise, allowing them to revel in their power to address the world while keeping their identities concealed.

Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, left, is suing The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, led by Susan Goldberg, saying the paper violated her privacy in reporting on comments sent from her e-mail address.

A New Yorker cartoon from 1993, during the Web’s infancy, with one mutt saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” became an emblem of that freedom. For years, it was the magazine’s most reproduced cartoon.

When news sites, after years of hanging back, embraced the idea of allowing readers to post comments, the near-universal assumption was that anyone could weigh in and remain anonymous. But now, that idea is under attack from several directions, and journalists, more than ever, are questioning whether anonymity should be a given on news sites.

The Washington Post plans to revise its comments policy over the next several months, and one of the ideas under consideration is to give greater prominence to commenters using real names.

The New York Times, The Post and many other papers have moved in stages toward requiring that people register before posting comments, providing some information about themselves that is not shown onscreen.

The Huffington Post soon will announce changes, including ranking commenters based in part on how well other readers know and trust their writing.

“Anonymity is just the way things are done. It’s an accepted part of the Internet, but there’s no question that people hide behind anonymity to make vile or controversial comments,” said Arianna Huffington, a founder of The Huffington Post. “I feel that this is almost like an education process. As the rules of the road are changing and the Internet is growing up, the trend is away from anonymity.”

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