Paul Alan Levy (Public Citizen Consumer Law & Policy Blog) has a very helpful analysis. Right now, Montana Standard users have to provide their real names to register as commenters, but they can also add a “screen name,” and their comments go up under the screen name. Starting Jan. 1, comments will be posted under the users’ real name, but:

The kicker here is that the change is retroactive. Apparently unwilling to part with the wealth of comments that are already posted on its web site under the old policy, but also, apparently, unwilling to configure its software so that comments posted before the new policy is implemented remain under the chosen screen names, the Standard announces that past comments will suddenly appear using the users’ real names unless users contact the paper no later than December 26 to ask that their comments be removed.

Seems pretty appalling:

The Standard’s editor … [stated] that it is publishing notice of its new policy, including the retroactive application, in both its print editions and web site, and that it “is sending emails to prior commenters, when it has valid email addresses.” … But depending on how long it has been since the Standard started accepting registrations, it is quite possible that users may have changed their email addresses, or have move on to a new email address without ever canceling the old one, and hence they might not see the Standard’s notice. And it is also 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. Or, their comments might have revealed something about their own experiences or past conduct that they were willing to share with the public anonymously, making a valuable contribution to a discussion, but would never have been willing to provide had they known that their own names would be attached. The Standard could be putting livelihoods and more at risk through its retroactive changes.

This also seems inconsistent with the Standard’s Privacy Policy, which reads, in relevant part (emphasis added):

Information Gathered by Voluntary Submission

To make use of certain features on our Services (such as contests, story comments, letters to the editor, personalized web pages and other interactive forums and blogs) visitors need to register and to provide certain information as part of the registration or participation process. We may ask, for example, for your name, e-mail address, gender, age, and zip code, and we might request information on your interest in sports, personal finance, the performing arts, and the like….

What We Do With the Information We Gather About You

We or one of our affiliated companies may perform statistical, marketing and demographic analyses of our delivery subscribers and their subscription patterns. In addition, we may generally inform our advertisers about our subscriber base. When we present information to our advertisers — to help them understand our audience and confirm the value of advertising on our websites — it is usually in the form of aggregated statistics on traffic to various pages within our sites. 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 as described in “Compliance with Legal Process” below.

A Final Note: ….

The web is an evolving medium. If we need to change our Privacy Policy at some point in the future, we will post the changes before they take effect if we believe that the change in the way we use your personal information is significant or material. 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 newspaper editor, David McCumber, wrote the following to Paul Alan Levy and me:

A few things in response to your [i.e., Paul’s] very thoughtful, well-written blog post about our commenting decision:

It is not that I am “unwilling to configure our software so that comments posted before the new policy is implemented remain under chosen screen names.” I extensively investigated that possibility and was unfortunately told by our content-management software experts that such a configuration is impossible.

Based on that, I am trying to do what is most equitable to all of our readers.

I believe that some of our challenges here are unique to community journalists. When a relatively small city is at the center of your market, just about everybody commented about is known, and the anonymous comments sting. I personally believe that very few of our readers are concerned about employers’ retaliation; I think that instead the relatively few posters who consistently offer destructive and noxious comments enjoy the cloak of anonymity in order to avoid community accountability. I believe that our site is and should be a community meeting place, and as such, rules of conduct should apply.

That said, I am as ardent a believer in free speech as you are likely to find in this profession. I also believe in transparency and accountability.

I must say that I’m extremely skeptical that it is really technically “impossible,” or even highly impractical, to maintain the anonymity of past comments. If the newspaper really valued its readers’ privacy, and the promise that seems to me to be made in the Privacy Policy (and that is in any event implicitly expected by commenters), I would think that some technical solution would have been eminently possible, even if it would involve some modest expense and hassle. (For instance, I assume the tech people could just replace the real names in all the existing user entries with the screen names, and then block any future posts from those now-fully-anonymous accounts. That would require users to create new real-name-based accounts, but that seems a modest price to pay for maintaining the privacy of the old accounts.)

In any event, this struck me as an interesting story, which I thought I’d pass along. See also the post by Wendy Davis (MediaPost) that, I believe, broke the story.

UPDATE: Paul Alan Levy has a follow-up post.