Commentary

After Privacy Breach, Blog Commenter Leaves Job

Kurt Greenbaum, an editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, doesn't seem all that happy that his newspaper allows people to publish unmoderated comments. And he doesn't seem to be much of a fan of the paper's privacy policy, either.

In a recent, remarkably self-satisfied column, "Post a vulgar comment while you're at work, lose your job," Greenbaum bragged about how he outed one formerly anonymous commenter.

Greenbaum wrote that someone sent in a "vulgar expression for a part of a woman's anatomy" as a comment to an item that posed the question "What's the craziest thing you've ever eaten?"

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Someone at the paper deleted the remark, but the same commenter re-sent it. At that point, Greenbaum made an apparently off-the-cuff decision to out the poster. Greenbaum had the commenter's IP address -- it was included in the email with his original comment -- and could tell that it came from a local school.

He called the school, informed on the commenter and then forwarded the email. It didn't take the school long to figure out that a teacher had sent it the message; he ended up resigning that day.

Greenbaum might have reacted impulsively, but it's still troubling that a journalist with 27 years of experience didn't question whether it was wise to out one of the paper's readers -- a decision that certainly seems to violate the paper's own policies. The site's privacy policy states: "We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information. In some cases, however, we may provide information to legal officials."

Greenbaum, who holds the title director of social media, posted a follow-up column today denying that he had disclosed private information. "I had none to reveal and wouldn't have if I had it," he writes.

Apparently, the online editor still doesn't grasp that IP addresses can be used to identify individuals.

What Greenbaum really seems to resent is that any random reader can now get published simply by hitting the send button. If Greenbaum mourns for the old days, when editors tightly controlled who appeared in the letters/op-ed pages, he could and should lobby the paper to disable automatic comments.

Of course, that path contradicts much of the conventional wisdom about what newspapers need to do to bring their businesses into the digital era. Then again, so does ratting out commenters to their bosses.

7 comments about "After Privacy Breach, Blog Commenter Leaves Job".
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  1. Spider Graham from Trainingcraft, November 18, 2009 at 5:32 p.m.

    It's a tough call. On one hand you have privacy issues and on the other hand you have community based rules of decorum. While I would support the right of people to share in the conversation, I'm not sure that I would agree that people should be able to post content that may be offensive to others if it doesn't lend anything of merit to the conversation.

    While the punishment doesn't seem to fit the crime (if you want to call it that) maybe it can serve as a reminder to others that we all share the mouthpiece of social media and not everybody is amused by juvenile comments that serve only to shock and not to inspire or engage.

  2. Jeff Rutherford from Jeff Rutherford Media Relations, LLC, November 18, 2009 at 5:46 p.m.

    Wendy, I don't agree with you on this one. I've seen plenty of newspaper stories with anonymous comments enabled that showcased vile, racist, misogynistic comments. Why in the world should newspapers or blogs or other digital news organizations be expected to allow anonymous comments? If you're going to post some vile comment, you certainly should be man/woman enough to add your name to it.

    Newspapers have published letters to the editors for many, many years. Very few of them publish those letters anonymously.

    And, why should newspapers or other digital publishers be forced into spending enormous amounts of time deleting inappropriate comments published anonymously. Not allowing anonymous comments will lower that monitoring/deleting task tremendously, because few troglodytes will bother to post their venom if they know they're not anonymous.

    I certainly have no problem with the fact that readers can respond with a simple click of a button. That allows tremendous feedback -something that didn't exist previously. Very few people will actually go through the process of physically writing a letter to the editor and mailing it.

    But there's a difference between giving your readers ample, and easy, opportunity to respond and react online - and giving them an anonymous forum to air their worst thoughts.

  3. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, November 18, 2009 at 5:51 p.m.

    Deleting offensive anonymous comments is one thing, and i can see both sides of that debate. Outing the person who wrote them is something else entirely, barring death threats and the like. This guy Greenbaum should likewise resign.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 18, 2009 at 6 p.m.

    Remember when you would get "dirty" phone calls? Respond to the caller and they will keep calling. Hang up immediately, the caller is not getting his intended reaction and calls someone else. Hateful words should never be published. Dangerous threats should be reported.

  5. Mark Moran from Dulcinea Media, November 18, 2009 at 7:21 p.m.

    Clearly this was a violation of the paper's own policies, and a breach of the report's ethical obligations. A mere vulgarity is not a reason to report a reader to his or her boss; indeed, there is never any reason for doing that. If the comment was a death threat or otherwise a criminal act, then call the police; otherwise, just delete it, or get software that doesn't allow expletives to be displayed to begin with. How far down the slope is reporting to an employer that an employee espoused a politically unpopular position ?

  6. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, November 18, 2009 at 8:58 p.m.

    In my opinion, Kurt Greenbaum was 100% wrong. If a website allows anonymous comments, without moderation, they are inviting vulgarities. Such websites are exactly the same as the old Citizens Band radio. It also was anonymous and un-moderated, and it quickly became a zoo.

    And was Mr. Greenbaum certain that the school didn't allow staff to use their computers on breaks or lunch time?

    I gleefully look forward to hearing that the school employee successfully sues both Mr. Greenbaum and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

  7. Ej Meany from IPC, November 19, 2009 at 5:23 p.m.

    @Chuck Lantz: I, too, am awaiting the lawsuit. Might have to file an amicus brief for the foulmouthed jokester. Oh wait, I'm not a lawyer. Damn.

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