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Anonymous Blog Comments and Comment Spam: Open Thread on Best Practices

The New York Times ran an interesting article Monday about how certain news Web sites and blogs have begun moving away from the once-standard practice of allowing anonymous posting of comments on articles. In the story, the Times mentions the recent hubbub surrounding Cleveland judge Shirley Strickland Saffold, whose e-mail address was used to register a commenter named "Lawmiss" on the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Web site. Lawmiss proceeded to make some inflammatory (and likely unethical, if, in fact, Lawmiss is found to be Judge Saffold herself) comments on articles about cases before her.

The Plain Dealer outed Saffold -- on the front page -- after the editors were spurred to look further into the identity of the commenter because the commenter had said some not-so-nice things about a reporter's relative. Now Saffold and her daughter, who has stepped up to the plate to claim responsibility for the comments, are suing the paper (PDF) for $50 million for, inter alia, violating the site's privacy policy. And the judge has also subpoenaed the paper's editor and the reporter who wrote the article to testify at a hearing about whether the judge now needs to recuse herself. Defense lawyers aren't waiting around for her to decide.

In the wake of the Saffold fiasco, the Plain Dealer has committed to go more anonymous with its commenting policy, doing away with the ability to trace comments back to an e-mail address. But according to the Times article, certain news sites are heading the opposite direction. Even if not banning anonymous comments outright, they are coming up with creative ways to downplay them.

The comments policies at legal blogs, of course, run the gamut. Above the Law recently announced a new system requiring unique commenter IDs, though there still sure seem to be a lot of comments posted by "Guest." The WSJ Law Blog lets you call yourself whatever you'd like, and doesn't require an associated e-mail address. We at LBW require you to provide an e-mail address, though we do not publish it with your comment (and also promise not to splash it across the front page of the Plain Dealer).

One issue that clearly colors how blogs wish to structure their comment policies is that of "comment spam." Scott Greenfield over at Simple Justice has been one of the leading crusaders of the blogosphere against comment spam, and has spent countless hours reviewing individual comments on his blog (and he gets quite a few) to frustrate the goals of the spammers. We get the occasional "advanced spam" comment (I had started to write "intelligent spam," but that is way too kind) as well (for example, here, on Monday's Blawg Review post) and, frankly, struggle with where to draw the "unpublish" line.

So, readers, all this background was just a long-winded way of opening up the debate: Is anonymous commenting vital to the Internet's functioning as it should? If you don't have the time or resources to review every comment before publishing it on your blog, is there a solution short of banning comments altogether?

Posted by Eric Lipman on April 14, 2010 at 11:39 AM | Permalink | Comments (36)


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