'Montana Standard' Abandons Plan To Retroactively Unmask Commenters

The Montana Standard has retreated from a controversial plan to retroactively unmask its commenters.

Instead, the Lee Enterprises-owned daily paper based in Butte, Montana intends to delete all of its the old comments, many of which were made under pseudonyms. Going forward, the paper will require people to use their real names when posting comments.

"Because of certain limitations in our web site’s content management system, The Standard initially announced that unless we received requests from individual commenters for previous comments to be removed, earlier comments would as of Jan. 1 be displayed with real names," the paper announced today. "We are concerned that such a change would not be fair to those who are either unaware of the pending change or have not contacted us."

Editor David McCumber told MediaPost last month that the newspaper was banning anonymous comments due to their "corrosive nature." He said that even though the company moderates posts, it still receives many comments that are "very negative in nature about individuals."

McCumber has also said that the company's software wouldn't have allowed it to require real names after Jan. 1, but still preserve the pseudonyms attached to prior comments.

Regardless of the paper's reasons, news of its plans to name people who thought they had commented anonymously drew considerable criticism, from readers as well as outside observers.

Law professor Eugene Volokh, who wrote about the newspaper's decision at the Volokh Conpsiracy, said that retroactively unmasking people appeared to be inconsistent with the newspaper's privacy policy.

That document not only promises to refrain from sharing users' information with third parties without users' specific approval, but also says the paper wouldn't retroactively change course. "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," the policy says. 

Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the advocacy group Public Citizen, also criticized the original decision, writing that it seemed "highly irresponsible."

He added that it was "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."

Levy praised the newspaper's decision to honor the commitment it made to its readers. “The editor made a reasonable choice among the imperfect alternatives given the constraints that the chain's software system imposes on his newspaper,” he says.

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