Monday, May 05, 2008

Free Speech: I've heard of that

Jim Ryan's recent BLOG article on the privacy SNAFU at the Standard Times covers the bases pretty well, but I think I need to add some of my own thoughts on this issue. This is about confidentiality and free speech.

Anonymous free speech has a very long connection with our country, going back to the pre-revolutionary days when anonymous pamphleteers risked everything to call for first tax resistance and then independence from England, the most powerful country in the world at the time. This tradition was carried further in debate on the constitution through the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers - the 1700's version of the BLOG. Anonymous and confidential writing was essential to the abolitionist movement which helped end slavery. It has been found to be an essential part of free speech by the Supreme Court and deserving of diligent protection. When the Standard Times had the "privacy controls" reset, which exposed the identities of online posters to the world for a short time, they failed to provide that protection. Their explanation seems a bit simplistic and hollow.

The E.W. Scripps company lists 19 online newspapers. I visited most of them in the last couple days. All of them have a privacy policy essentially like this one, with only the name and/or web address of the paper being changed. In every one of them there is this key phrase: "We do not share personal identifying information with any third party without your permission." This is part of what all posters agreed to before they were allowed to post. This is the official privacy policy of every online newspaper that Scripps lists, not just the Standard Times. I regularly read and occasionally post to other Texas Scripps papers such as the Abilene Reporter News, the Wichita Falls Times Record News, and the Corpus Christi Caller Times. In no case do they display any personal information beyond the posters username. In some cases they are set up to where you can click on a poster, you will also get posting history for that username. Some of them have a way to contact a poster, but in that case they will forward the message for you, they don't display an email address or other personal information.

Like I said, I visited most of the Scripps online papers this weekend. In a few cases, commenting is not allowed. In every case where comments are allowed, no personal information beyond the user name is displayed. In some cases, a posting history is available, and in some a way of forwarding emails without providing email addresses is provided. In no case was personal identifying information revealed.

It is likely that they were trying to make the Standard Times look like this, and if you click on a username in a post you get something like this. That is much different the the detailed personal information that was reportedly presented to readers last week. That is not a slight reset of privacy controls, that is a major privacy breach. If it did happen across the Scripps line of papers it would have serious consequences. This is not some minor difference where the Standard Times is trying to keep data private that other papers make public. We are talking a wholesale breach of the privacy agreement that users are asked to trust to protect their anonymous speech online. That trust has been broken, and the response has not yet risen to the level needed. As noted in Jim Ryan's recent article, at least one of the remedies tried so far has been less than useless.

Free speech in San Angelo took a serious blow. It is likely some peoples livelihood and jobs will be affected. It is suspicious that the only usernames being mentioned are involved in the chief's campaign, when the damaging information was available on all issues. This includes contentious school issues and the FLDS allegations. Did this put some teachers jobs at risk? Did this affect the ongoing CPS or criminal investigations? We might never know.

My advice for people posting comments on the Standard Times is to either identify yourself, like Jim Ryan and I have and then post carefully, or get a throwaway Email address from Yahoo or Google or AOL, and register with fictitious information. It looks like it will take the Standard Times a while to figure out the whole internet and privacy thing. Protect your own freedom of speech. The First amendment isn't just to protect reporters and columnists. It is also supposed to protect anonymous writers no matter if they are an average Joe or even a political candidate.

1 comment:

  1. By Joe, I think your onto something.