Anonymous or not?

When I got my first AOL screen name in the sixth grade I can vividly remember my parents words: Nothing you write on the internet is private.

Of course I didn’t listen. I proceeded to IM my heart out about the boys I liked, the girls I didn’t, and every single thing I’d prefer my parents rather not know. But then again, I was in the sixth grade.

Apparently judge Shirley Strickland Saffold disregarded the memo as well. Though she’s using one of my favored escape routes:  blaming someone else. Her scapegoat? The daughter.

When the Plain Dealer of Cleveland discovered strangely well-informed anonymous comments from user “lawmiss” on their site defaming a local lawyer and commenting on high-profile cases, they decided to do a little digging. Though their site claims anonymity, the actual privacy policy reports the right to access identifying information.

By accessing the user’s e-mail address The Plain Dealer concluded that the comments were, in fact, coming from Staffold. So they printed this article.

The issue brings up a heated debate:  was The Plain Dealer justified in accessing and reporting on this information? Or should their promise of anonymity guard her identity at all costs?

My argument would quite bluntly be that she is an idiot and should be forced to fess up to her hardly-appropriate comments. She was communicating on the Internet– an outwardly public forum– did she really think she could hide behind a silly screen name when she had given the site her e-mail and other personal information?

But the debate brings up a deeper issue: If The Plain Dealer had insisted upon real names as screen names would the situation have presented itself as such a huge issue?

According to this article in the New York Times, The Washington Post, the New York Post, the Huffington Post and the New York Times are all making moves towards real name comments in order to prevent vile commenters from simply hiding behind a phony name.

Howard Owens agrees in this [albeit lengthy] blogpost on the issue, comparing anonymous comments to anonymous letters to the editor– a phenomenon banned long ago. It’s quite simple, he says “readers have a right to know who is saying what.”

For those who say there will always be impostors– fake names that sound real– you’re right. But I think this is a step in the right direction. If Saffold had been asked to give her real name and not had the option of an identity disguising screen name, she might have thought twice about posting what she did. With a screen name, and the idea that’s it’s anonymous, everything just looks so easy. But when people are asked to be honest, when disguising your identity takes a little more craft, I would venture to say the vile comments will decrease.

Furthermore, those comments with real names at the bottom will bring more credit to the comments section as a whole. Allowing it to move beyond a string of banter among pseudonyms and perhaps work like a list of sources whose opinions can be judged by their title or lack thereof. People will be held accountable for their opinions; and their opinions will bring accountability and demension to the story.


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