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    Chicago Tribune: Anonymity is no guarantee in online postings

    The Chicago Tribune reports on the privacy and anonymity (or lack of) afforded online commenters:

    Write something threatening or defamatory and the mask of anonymity can be removed. It’s technologically simple to track the source of a comment; the more difficult question is when it should be done.

    Policies vary as much as the Web sites that create them, and when site operators do reveal the identity of anonymous commenters, they balance values such as free speech, public safety and the ability to foster an online community.

    “If people … are afraid that some editor is going to look behind the administrative interface, then (they) won’t come and talk on the site, and they certainly won’t be as willing to talk about controversial topics,” said David Ardia, director of Harvard Law School’s Citizen Media Law Project.

    Often, though, courts can force the unveiling. If subpoenaed, most Web operators can produce a poster’s IP, or Internet protocol, address, which usually can be traced back to an Internet provider or commenter. […]

    While complying with subpoenas isn’t unusual, some argue the ease with which an ID can be acquired should be made clearer to those using comment boards.

    News organizations everywhere are untangling these issues. Decisions at the Tribune are made individually, said Karen Flax, assistant general counsel for the Tribune Company. She said that, even under subpoena, the company will try to inform a commenter before releasing information about him or her, something the Tribune’s Terms of Service permits. […]

    Although some lament civility’s demise online, Chris Tolles holds a more liberal view. Tolles is CEO of Topix.com, which he said posts between 120,000 and 150,000 comments a day.

    “Enabling people to say what they will,” he said, “makes for a better society in the long run, because it means people have to have a thicker skin (and) it means a lot of things come out that wouldn’t have come out.”

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