April 12, 2010

The NYT fails to distinguish between anonymous and pseudonymous.

It uses the word "anonymous" for "pseudonymous" throughout this discussion of on-line comments, fudging the case for requiring those who comment on news stories to use their real names.

That aside, I'm interested in the question whether a newspaper can investigate and reveal the identity of those who comment without using their real names.
The Plain Dealer of Cleveland recently discovered that anonymous comments on its site, disparaging a local lawyer, were made using the e-mail address of a judge who was presiding over some of that lawyer’s cases.

That kind of proxy has been documented before; what was more unusual was that The Plain Dealer exposed the connection in an article. The judge, Shirley Strickland Saffold, denied sending the messages — her daughter took responsibility for some of them. And last week, the judge sued The Plain Dealer, claiming it had violated her privacy.
Hmmm. I'd like to see this legal question connected to lawsuits that are aimed at discovering who's behind an on-line pseudonym. I tend to disfavor both kinds of lawsuits, but I'll bet there are people who would in sequence, without thinking too much, favor both. You can't favor both, can you?

57 comments:

HDHouse said...

I think you can. Most publically accessible sites come with a disclaimer of practices...not knowing if that is the case here...and a number of more private sites require more before the permission is given.

The Plain Dealer, being by default a public forum of ideas and such may fall under a different set of rules than perhaps a blog does or a more privately developed site.

OK Ann. You wrote it. You solve it.

Ann Althouse said...

HD, you need to be clearer. I have no idea what you're trying to say.

edutcher said...

There's always the possibility Senor Perez-Pena (and/or his editor) doesn't know the difference.

Ann Althouse said...

That aside, I'm interested in the question whether a newspaper can investigate and reveal the identity of those who comment without using their real names.

In the case of threats, etc., I would think that sort of thing would be available to law enforcement, especially the Feds. In the case of talk radio, stations don't do it, but have been known to open their call logs.

Ann Althouse said...

@edutcher Leave aside the newspaper responding to law enforcement authorities: Can the newspaper reveal names of commenters in its reporting, because it's newsworthy?

Bryan C said...

There's something unseemly about a newspaper using their resources to investigate commenters. OTOH, If you use your own email address to set up your "anonymous" commenting account then you're not really trying very hard.

In fact unless you consistently take positive steps to remain anonymous online then you just aren't anonymous. I mean steps like using proxies, different computers and ISPs from different physical locations, varying your posting routine, etc. What many people would dismiss of as paranoid spy-movie stuff. Good web analytics routines will see right through casual attempts witjout a second glance. It's just a matter of how much effort someone's willing to expend to ID you.

Triangle Man said...

What do you mean by "can"? Aren't the only things preventing a newspaper from doing this the strength of the psedonymity itself and the possible consequences to the paper's reputation. Should pseudonymouns commenters be given the same protections (under the papers policies) as anonymous sources?

Ann Althouse said...

"What do you mean by "can"?"

I mean can they successfully pursue that path if they choose, without liability.

David said...

You can favor both, just as you can favor allowing the courts to approve subpoenas for bank records but disfavor having newspapers print confidential financial information.

Peter V. Bella said...

I don't know if this helps, but here is a quote from their privacy policy:
"In addition, we reserve the right to use the information we collect about your computer, which may at times be able to identify you, for any lawful business purpose. . ."

From Cleveland.com

rhhardin said...

I defeat their investigation by using my real name.

SUBHRA said...

I would think that sort of thing would be available to law enforcement, especially the Feds. In the case of talk radio, stations don't do it, but have been known to open their call logs.

CLICK

PatHMV said...

Ann, I think the newspaper, as a part of the press, could print the names of pseudonymous or anonymous commenters, if it can discover them. However, if the comments were left on the newspaper's own website, and the newspaper promised confidentiality to users who left comments (such as saying "e-mail address will not be displayed"), then the newspaper could be liable for a breach of contract claim, if it in fact used that e-mail address to determine the commenter's identity.

Pogo said...

After a reporter for the Rochester Post-Bulletin noticed similarities between city councilman Pat Carr and comments from a pseudonymous supporter who posted message after message of praise of Carr on the newspaper's web site, Carr admitted that Carr himself was actually the "supporter".

Said Carr, "I stand by what I (wrote)."

It ended up in the Washington Post, 10-4-06, Star Tribune, and on AP, 8-29-06

The newspaper makes you log in with your subscription ID, so it wasn't that hard.


It was hilarious.

Der Hahn said...

I think HD and I might be on the same page, even if unintentionally.

In my opinion most people (including our esteemed hostess it seems) confuse anonymous with private. Yeah, they may be synonyms and seem to be the same thing legally but that doesn't lessen the confusion. The internet has made it even worse.

Wandering around in public spaces, even internet public spaces, can not by definition be 'private'.

Anonymity is a demand for collusion in concealing your identity and you don't have the right to demand it. The Plain Dealer had no fiduciary duty to not disclose.

Ann Althouse said...

@PatHMV I thought in terms of breach of contract too, but the article says the lawsuit is based on "privacy," so I thought, if that's properly written, there's some sort of state law tort claim.

HDHouse said...

and i have no idea of why you ask. you know full well that there are disclaimers about use and source on any number of sites and by signing in you give up anonymous status.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"Can the newspaper reveal names of commenters in its reporting, because it's newsworthy?"

Could it? Absolutely.

Should it? Not unless it warns commenters prior to their commenting.

Anyone who registers with their real name is an idiot anyway, so I have very little sympathy for them when the newspaper fucks them over for a byline ... but it's still (marginally) a free country. It's scuzzy, but there's nothing to stop them from being scumbags.

If the press wants to fuck over its own remaining few subscribers I think they'll pay a price for it.

Having said that ... for the NY Times to suggest there is something nefarious about using anonymous sources is just the height of arrogance and hypocrisy.

Their fucking news pages are full of anonymous commenting by every senior administration official in Washington, D.C.

What's good for the goose, no?

El Pollo Real said...

Maybe OT but is this at all related to whether a newspaper such as The Economist can write and publish entire news articles and opinions without using real names?

Pogo said...

"and i have no idea of why you ask."

Your first post read as if written on psilocybin.

AJ Lynch said...

Wouldn't it be funny if Jeremy was really Barack Obama? Althouse - tell us - does his email address end in whitehouse.gov?

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"[The New York Times] uses the word 'anonymous' for 'pseudonymous' throughout this discussion of on-line comments, fudging the case for requiring those who comment on news stories to use their real names."

By the way, you're assumning they even know the difference between "anonymous" and "pseudonymous."

It's a mistake to give the New York Times that much credit.

Ever heard of Jayson Blair?

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"... does his email address end in whitehouse.gov?"

AlphaLiberal is Rahm Emmanuel. Go ahead and out him, Ann.

He has to be. He's so fucking retarded.

c3 said...

I'm Spartacus!

Kylos said...

If the terms simply say "your email address will not be revealed", then I have a hard time seeing how that could be viewed as breach of contract without requiring skilled angling.

Oh, and New Ham, you may think it idiotic to use your real name or easily traced pseudonym, but I've found that doing so can act as a limiter on one's big mouth, preventing one from saying much more idiotic things. You may want to consider that in your own postings.

Triangle Man said...

Identifying a pseudonymous commenter is definitely a dick move.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Can the newspaper reveal names of commenters in its reporting, because it's newsworthy?

Of course I'm not a lawyer so this is just my lay person's opinion.

I don't think they can without liability when the commenter is a private individual who just doesn't want their name published. As long as the comments are not threatening, are civil, the public can express any opinions they want and attempt to sway the opinion of others in the public.

A public official (non private individual) who is hiding behind the anonymity of the internet and posting comments that may be relevant to public policy or that are part of public events should not be allowed to hide. In the case of the judge, I assume he is an elected official or at the very least is not a private individual in his capacity as a judge. So then, his identity should not be secret and his postings would be part of the public record.

Our local fish wrap will not print a letter in the editorial section without having your name and verifying who you are by a phone call or other methods. They don't publish anonymous letters.

However, they do have an active comment section and blogs where many people with pseudonyms and with their real names post. I post with a pseudonym because I don't want the wack jobs that post there to contact me at home or at work. My husband has been a frequent contributor to the letters to the editor's page and because we are in a relatively small town and we are listed in the phone book, he has received threatening calls from people who disagreed with him.

Pseudonyms and anonyminity are for the protection of the commenters. If the newspaper were to reveal, without permission, the names of all commenters and someone got hurt, the paper would definitely be liable.

Pogo said...

"Pseudonyms and anonyminity are for the protection of the commenters. "

Great post, DBQ.

Mark O said...

I favor lawsuits that uncover the names of people who defame others on the Internet. Because one cannot bring an action against the "publisher" of these defamatory comments, one is left to attempt to find the name of the person and bring an action against that person. Even then, the defamation lives on forever on the Internet. It is a wrong without a remedy.

AJ Lynch said...

Mark O:

You sound like Bill O'Reilley. He wants internet restrictions too aka limits on free speech.

Triangle Man said...

Even then, the defamation lives on forever on the Internet. It is a wrong without a remedy.

Why would you give credence to defamatory crap posted under a pseudonym? Adopting a pseudonym involves some sacrifice of credibility.

paul a'barge said...

Please, come on. The entire purpose of a pseudonym is to remain anonymous.

Flexo said...

The "Plain Dealer" and the "New York Times" are themselves pseudonyms. There are no real, live people by those names, they are artificial constructs by which others can publish things.

So let's not delude ourselves into thinking that there is some big journalistic ethic that is being violated by commenters using pseudonyms.

edutcher said...

Ann Althouse said...

@edutcher Leave aside the newspaper responding to law enforcement authorities: Can the newspaper reveal names of commenters in its reporting, because it's newsworthy?

I'd say so. Leaving aside invective of any sort, what about a Balfour-style declaration that suggests a radical policy change (cut several cabinet departments to help pay off the deficit)? Or a trial balloon by a major candidate (all overseas troops home in 30 days after election)? I really don't see anything to stop them.

One problem is that the "right to privacy" invented by Louis Brandeis (IIRC) is a perfect example of the "living document" nonsense the Demos love. Said right can be twisted any time someone wants it to mean whatever they want it to mean, unlike those in the Bill of Rights which are specifically written. You will probably give me several arguments why the system doesn't work that way, but I am making the point that the ones specifically written are vulnerable enough as is, the ones derived from someone's opinion are much more so.

Flexo said...

I don't know about the inventions of Louis Brandeis, but I do know of the use of pseudonyms by many writers leading up to and during the American Revolution, not to mention the use of pseudonyms in advocating for and against the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.

Flexo said...

I also know of the practice of courts to hide behind "per curiam" opinions.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"I've found that doing so can act as a limiter on one's big mouth, preventing one from saying much more idiotic things. You may want to consider that in your own postings."

Let's cut to the fucking chase, dude.

The NY Times wants the IDs of its commenters so it can use its fucking union thugs to hunt them down and intimidate them.

They want to be able to use the politics of personal destruction against anyone who deigns to open their mouths in protest against this facist fucking government.

People went to jail behind the spying the government did against Joe The Plumber and that pisses the New York Times off.

They want to be able to use their friends in government and their thugs in the union to stifle dissent. They're lucky we're not occupying their fucking offices in a fit of civil disobedience, preventing them from earning any advertising revenue - which, quite frankly they would do were the shoe on the other foot.

That's what those fuckers want. They want to enslave the rest of us to their socialist agenda.

Fuck that; fuck them and fuck you.

How's that for censoring myself, punk?

No freedom. No peace.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"I've found that doing so can act as a limiter on one's big mouth, preventing one from saying much more idiotic things. You may want to consider that in your own postings."

Let's cut to the fucking chase, dude.

The NY Times wants the IDs of its commenters so it can use its fucking union thugs to hunt them down and intimidate them.

They want to be able to use the politics of personal destruction against anyone who deigns to open their mouths in protest against this facist fucking government.

People went to jail behind the spying the government did against Joe The Plumber and that pisses the New York Times off.

They want to be able to use their friends in government and their thugs in the union to stifle dissent. They're lucky we're not occupying their fucking offices in a fit of civil disobedience, preventing them from earning any advertising revenue - which, quite frankly they would do were the shoe on the other foot.

That's what those fuckers want. They want to enslave the rest of us to their socialist agenda.

Fuck that; fuck them and fuck you.

How's that for censoring myself, punk?

Paul Zrimsek said...

Your first post read as if written on psilocybin.

Yeah, I noticed the improvement too.

Alex said...

What are we really talking about here? I think the left is scared shitless about right-of-center blogs impact on upcoming elections and want to shut down all discussions on said blogs. Anything else is just parsing.

jeff said...

"Fuck that; fuck them and fuck you.

How's that for censoring myself, punk?

No freedom. No peace."

I think you just proved his point. Was that your intent?

Trooper York said...

Ann Althouse said...
HD, you need to be clearer. I have no idea what you're trying to say.


Is this the first time you read one of his comments?

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"I think you just proved his point. Was that your intent?"

My intent is to stretch the boundaries of free speech, which the left is working to shut down in America.

It won't happen.

I am deliberately not censoring myself to ensure that their criticisms don't in any way affect what I think needs to be said.

The left needs to be told: Fuck You.

They need to understand the depth of our disdain for them, their attitudes and their methods.

They need to understand that they will not enjoy their time in public office. They will receive no accolades. They will enjoy no peace; because they stand for the death of individual freedoms.

Fuck that. Fuck them and fuck you.

Mark O said...

Ah, yes, Mr. Lynch. I have a much wider view of the First Amendment than that. However, you really need to understand that defamation is not protected by the First Amemdment and that permitting people redress for defamation is hardly a restriction on "free speech."


Study up and get back to me.

AJ Lynch said...

Study Up Mark O? Sounds like something Althouse might say. Are you her sock-puppet?

Mark O said...

Dearest Your Lynchness:

Generally, any agreement between Ann and me is accidental.

The "sock puppet" gig is one best suited to someone much more compliant than I.

Nevertheless, I can see from your unwillingness to address the merits of your posts and your immediate veer to the personal, that you must be 13. So, I say to you, go to your room. I promise not to trouble your nascent mind over this again.

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"I favor lawsuits that uncover the names of people who defame others on the Internet. Because one cannot bring an action against the "publisher" of these defamatory comments, one is left to attempt to find the name of the person and bring an action against that person."

I have yet to see any instance of anyone being defamed on the internet.

Defamation lawsuits are a means to stifle dissent. Rich and powerful billionaire and millionaire politicians bringing defamation lawsuits against the citizenry is a thinly-disguised thug attempt to silence critics.

You steal from us the ballot box by running billionaires with unlimited budgets. Now you want to steal the soapbox from us so we can't even speak out against the corporate kleptocracy.

You folks in the left are leaving us no choice but the bullet box.

I hope you reap what you are sewing, frankly.

Douglas said...

A public official (non private individual) who is hiding behind the anonymity of the internet and posting comments that may be relevant to public policy or that are part of public events should not be allowed to hide. In the case of the judge, I assume he is an elected official or at the very least is not a private individual in his capacity as a judge. So then, his identity should not be secret and his postings would be part of the public record.

But a judge isn't allowed to comment on certain things. A judge isn't allowed to lend the prestige of the judicial office to one camp or another. Posting pseudonymously gives judges a means of posting their ideas without attaching their judicial identities to it. I think that's entirely proper.

jgm said...

Gee, funny, hours later, my comment on Ward Churchill's wife Natsu Saito using the sockpuppet "Truthforce" to praise her own and Ward's work on Amazon and getting caught at it hasn't appeared.

Need links, Althouse, or are you just not willing to post stuff detrimental to Churchill (whom, like Obama, and equally ludicrously, you supported)?

jgm said...

Sheesh, and now my comment saying essentially the same appears immediately. Maybe it was a blogger glitch. I've heard those things happen.

Still: You supported Obama! You supported Ward Churchill!

Nyah-nyah-nyah.

JAL said...

Sorry Professor for thinking you had done the taping this morning.

Just listened to it a while ago.

(Thought your stuff on the teen suicide sounded reasonable. The family's pain must be horrible. It seems like something else should have happened to intervene before it lead to a death.)

As for the tea party exchange ... Brazelon (why does she sound like an intelligent college freshman? What is that accent, that inflection?) illustrates why I often sigh and turn off the liberal side. They are remarkably un.in.formed. (She does do a far better job and is more coherant than the dark hair flicker you were opposite last fall.)

Do they not have high speed internet access? Can they not sign up for an RSS feed to a couple ... even one! ... relatively conservative news or blogsite? The question of whether the slur or spitting occurred should have raised some curiosity as the congress persons reissued statements correcting their previous ones. Who got arrested? Oh. She didn't know that either?

One runs the risk of sounding like a paid propagandist when something that significant can be misrepresented.

AJ Lynch said...

Mark O:

Come on - I like to leave the lawyering and legal, serious stuff to you lawyers. It's not personal - I just like to stick with what I do best - spraying my generally harmless graffiti here and there on the internets.

Mark O said...

Good neighbor Lynch,

Are you also posting as "Ham" the sandwich? Those posts contain the seeds of lunacy. If old man "Ham" would be so kind as to give me his real name, I might be able to find a way to defame him, although it would require him to have a positive reputation, which seems unlikely.


Anyway, his seeds find no purchase.
And, you many continue in your delusions, without repercussion.

In that way, you will be like Obama.

Penny said...

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

This is a policy that will only reinforce "group think". If you haven't read the comments over there recently, do so. Then imagine this rating system put on top of what you see. If that doesn't scare you, I wonder what would.

Mark O said...

Penny?

Snakes.

Kellia Ramares said...

Why do news orgs want to have comments rated for trustworthiness at least in part based on the fact that the commenter gives a real name, or otherwise do away with commenter anonymity, when they publish so many stories that have anonymous sources?

New "Hussein" Ham said...

"If that doesn't scare you, I wonder what would."

Shhhhhh,

We want the leftards all thinking like sheep.

Easier to control once we take over.

Penny said...

"Snakes?"

You got a point there, Mark O. They scare me too! Course I never ran into one at a voting booth.