Sunshine for the Virtual Town Hall

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By Tom Grubisich
Monday, May 14, 2007

These days we want "transparency" in all institutions, even private ones. There's one massive exception -- the Internet. It is, we are told, a giant town hall. Indeed, it has millions of people speaking out in millions of online forums. But most of them are wearing the equivalent of paper bags over their heads. We know them only by their Internet "handles" -- gotalife, runningwithscissors, stoptheplanet and myriad other inventive names.

Imagine going to a meeting about school overcrowding in your community. Everybody at the meeting is wearing nametags. You approach a cluster of people where one man is loudly complaining about waste in school spending. "Get rid of the bureaucrats, and then you'll have money to expand the school," he says, shaking his finger at the surrounding faces.

You notice his nametag -- "anticrat424." Between his sentences, you interject, "Excuse me, who are you?"

He gives you a narrowing look. "Taking names, huh? Going to sic the superintendent's police on me? Hah!"

In any community in America, if Mr. anticrat424 refused to identify himself, he would be ignored and frozen out of the civic problem-solving process. But on the Internet, Mr. anticrat424 is continually elevated to the podium, where he can have his angriest thoughts amplified through cyberspace as often as he wishes. He can call people the vilest names and that hate-mongering, too, will be amplified for all the world to see.

You would think Web sites would want to keep the hate-mongers from taking over, but many sites are unwitting enablers. At washingtonpost.com, editors and producers say they struggle to balance transparency against privacy. Until recently, many of the site's posters identified themselves with anonymous Internet handles -- which were the site's default ID. Now, people must enter a "user ID" that appears with their comments.

Hal Straus, washingtonpost.com's interactivity and communities editor, says the changes "move us in the direction of transparency." But the distinction is not quite a difference, because washingtonpost.com user IDs can be real names or fictional Internet handles. While the site prohibits comments that are libelous, abusive, obscene or otherwise inappropriate, Mr. anticrat424 could still find a well-amplified podium at washingtonpost.com.

The news and opinion site Huffingtonpost.com requires posters to register with their real names but maddeningly assures them that it will "never" use those names.

Though not foolproof, there are ways to at least raise the bar. Gordon Joseloff, a former CBS News correspondent who owns WestportNow.com, a popular grass-roots site in Westport, Conn., used to employ the standard permissive registration process. But in late 2005, turned off by the venom of anonymous posters, Joseloff instituted a policy requiring anyone who wanted to comment to use his or her real name. Joseloff also requires registrants to give their phone numbers. Numbers aren't posted on the site, but they give him and his team an additional check against false registration.

Policies and constraints understandably vary between large and small sites, but one concern common to all sites is whistle-blowers: What about someone who wants to expose an injustice or unfairness, whether it's a civil servant pinpointing malfeasance in government or, perhaps, a waiter complaining about lousy tipping at a local restaurant? How can they be protected from retaliation?

Online pioneer Vin Crosbie suggests that sites -- whether personal blogs, community sites or major news providers -- should be flexible enough to grant pseudonyms to users who want to blow a whistle. This would require sites to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. How often would such intervention be required? Not enough to require most sites to hire extra staff.

A site that grants a pseudonym would have to know the poster's real name as well as some facts that back up any accusations. The site wouldn't have to cave in whenever it was slapped with a subpoena. Courts have ruled that both anonymous and pseudonymous posters have "qualified privilege" under the First Amendment that protects their identities and puts a high legal bar in front of subpoena seekers.

If Web sites required posters to use their real names, while giving the shield of pseudonymity when it's merited, spirited online debate would continue unimpeded. It might even be enhanced by attracting contributors who are turned off today by name calling and worse. Except for the hate-mongers, who wouldn't want that?

The author, a former Post reporter and editor, writes about grass-roots journalism for Online Journalism Review. His e-mail address is TomEditor@msn.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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