FEATURE 

Ending the online free speech free-for-all

Jon Slattery looks at the implications of the recent decision of the Independent and Times to ban anonymous postings on their sites.

By Jon Slattery

It used to be newspapers that were accused of having power without responsibility. Now it’s the readers – or at least those posting their views on some national newspaper websites – who are being asked to take responsibility for their comments and stop hiding behind pseudonyms.

The Independent has led the way with online editor Martin King announcing last month that on independent.co.uk the free speech free-for-all for anonymous posters was to end. King said the website could no longer “justify giving a platform to those who abuse it.”

Independent.co.uk has changed its logins to encourage comments from individuals or even official bodies using their Facebook or Twitter accounts – with other options for Yahoo or Open ID log-ins. There is also a Disqus option, where those making comments must be validated via their email.

In the changes announced to the Times and the Sunday Times websites last month in advance of the new paywall, it was revealed that the paper would no longer allow anonymous posting or use of pseudonyms – unless posters had a real reason to protect their identity.

King made clear that the Independent’s decision was based on the need to stop abusive comments: “Websites have been encouraging cowardice. They allow users to hide behind virtual anonymity to make hasty, ill-researched and often intemperate comments regardless of any consideration for personal hurt or corporate damage.”

He urged independent.co.uk users: “If you are speaking up, then speak up proudly and with responsibility. Embrace this opportunity to come out from the cloak of anonymity.”

But is there a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and losing unique content generated by readers which is valid, authentic and can only be supplied when identities are protected?

A website publisher I spoke to claimed the “cloak of anonymity” helped generate debate around stories and created a community of users. But concerned that some people were using the site to carry out vendettas against individuals, they are planning to switch to platforms that allow users to comment using pseudonyms as long as they provide a valid email.

Jo Wadsworth, web editor of the Argus, Brighton, says of the moves by the Times and the Independent: “It's definitely an interesting experiment. No system can guarantee real names, but only the most persistent trolls will go to the trouble of inventing personas to re-register - and shelling out for the privilege in the case of the Times.

“However, some of the most valuable comments, news-wise, are left anonymously - tip-offs, personal accounts of traumatic experiences, etc. If I were implementing a real-names policy, I'd definitely want to retain a way for people to post these, even if these were post-moderated.”

Steve Busfield, Guardian News and Media's head of media and technology, warned that stopping anonymous quotes would curtail whistleblowing. 

He said: "Removing anonymity from comment posting will undoubtedly result in a fall in user comments. If I were to be cynical, I could point out that the Independent website generates few comments anyway (see its blogs page for instance), while the Times will already see a substantial fall in user interaction with the erection of its paywalls.

"It might be that comments will become slightly politer if the mask of anonymity is removed. But does it really gain other readers to know the name of a member of the public posting a comment hundreds of miles away? Removing commenter anonymity will also make threads less interesting, less revealing. There will certainly be less whistleblowing."

This is the dilemma facing publishers: How do they stop the abuse of freedom of speech on their websites while protecting those readers who can expose abuses of power and generate content by being whistleblowers only if their identity is protected.