Outing Your Commenters’ Identities

RulesIt’s important to have a clear set of rules.

Your Terms of Use document (terms of service, community guidelines, FAQ, rules of the road, etc.) is your social contract with your site’s users. Whether you craft it to your specific needs or use boilerplate, your Terms are the rules and a good site lives by and enforces those rules.

The rules should lay out what behavior is expected and what is unacceptable in your online community, and what happens the rules are broken. You expect your visitors to abide by the terms, and they should expect the same of you.

When users break the rules, they get demoted, blocked or banned. What happens when site owners break the rules?

Two regional news sites this week publicly disclosed the identity of a commenter, despite that penalty appearing to be outside the scope of their rules. In both cases, the commenter (the same person in both instances) gave the impression that he was a member of the community, even though he was promoting his company’s business agenda. Both sites justified their action based on the commenter’s ‘deceptive’ practice of hiding his identity.

However, neither site requires that commenters use their real identity. One set of terms says it’s unacceptable to “misrepresent your identity” or “pose as another person” but doesn’t require a real ID. In fact, that same site specifically states that “Your registration information is stored in a database. This information will not be disclosed to any third party without your consent…”

In both cases, the private email address and IP address, available to system administrators were used to identify the commenter. The person’s name was then made public – a punishment seemingly outside the scope of their rules.

I’d call that bad form.

News organizations live and die by their credibility. It seems to me that ignoring your own terms in order to get a good story is a violation of the trust the community places in a site. It’s a good way to lose community members, traffic and credibility.