Monday, January 23, 2012

New Inside Story policy: provide your full name for publication or your comment won't be published

I have had a great deal of respect for the Australian Policy Online (APO), produced by the Australian National University and University of Swinburne.

For several years the site has been a fantastic venue for serious discussions of public policy options, and a very useful source for policy resources and research. The site also, without prompting from me, republished several posts from this blog.

However, after commenting on an article in the Inside Story section of APO late last week, I received an email from the editor pointing out a change in their commenting policy.

Now anyone who submits a comment to Inside Story, as part of APO, must provide, and be prepared to have published, their full name. This new policy is detailed following their full articles using the text as below (highlight is mine):

Send us a comment

We welcome contributions about the issues covered in articles in Inside Story. Well-argued and clearly written comments are more likely to be published, and we’re now asking all contributors to provide their full name for publication. Because all comments are moderated, they will not appear immediately. Your email address is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *.
Now while I appreciate the sentiment of an editor who wishes to avoid spurious comments from people using pseudonyms or commenting anonymously, I found myself uncomfortable with the prospect of a website that forces anyone who comments to publicly reveal their real name in full.

I wrote a piece about this very topic a few months ago for Mumbrella, Toughen up - we need online anonymity, which discussed the various pitfalls involved in forcing people to reveal their real identity.

While I am sure it isn't the intent of this policy, one major risk - particularly relevant to a policy discussion site - is that of excluding certain groups from the conversation.

This includes people who, if their identity is published, may face physical or financial risk, those in witness protection programs, people who fear online attack if their views are taken the wrong way, those involved with policy making who have suggestions or questions, those under the age of 18 and more.

In many policy areas there are people who need to be cautious about revealing their real names publicly for legitimate reasons - whether the topic be health, law and order, immigration, development, gambling, climate change or something else.

While it is the right of each publication or website to define its own moderation and publication policies, the effect of this policy may be to silence people who have valid and important contributions to make, reducing the richness, robustness and usefulness of discussions.

If the primary concerns of Inside Story's editor and publisher are inappropriate comments, defamation, personal attacks and the like, these can be handled through pre-moderation (which they do already), backed up by a public moderation policy and community guidelines (which I cannot find in their site).

Alternatively Inside Story could require people to register and provide their real name in their account details, then publish comments under a name or pseudonym that the user selects. This would ensure they had real names if needed and allows regular contributors to maintain a consistent identity while still providing them with sufficient room to make valuable comments that otherwise they may not feel comfortable doing.

When Inside Story's editor, Peter Browne, (also credited as the Commentary Editor of Australian Policy Online) emailed me last week to ask if I was happy to have my comment published under my full name I thought about it for a few minutes and then decided that while I didn't mind my name being connected to my comments, it was time to take a stand, the damage to the public conversation could be too great. So I said no.

I won't be commenting further on Inside Story or Australian Policy Online while their current policy is in force, nor will I spend as much time reading the site. They remain welcome to republish my blog posts (which are licensed under Creative Commons, so I can't really stop them even if I had wanted to).

This decision may make me slightly poorer, however I believe Inside Story's decision significantly weakens their effectiveness and inclusiveness. The unintended consequence of forcing people to have their full name published alongside their comments is to make all of Australia poorer by stifling public policy discussion, particularly amongst those whose views most need to be heard.

I hope government agencies do not follow the same course on fulll names. It would severely restrict the value of the online channel to collect input on policy consultations and thereby make good policy harder to develop.

For the record, I've included a copy of my email exchange with Peter Browne, Commentary Editor of Australian Policy Online and Editor of Inside Story:
From: Peter Browne
Dear Craig, 
I’m not sure whether you noticed, but we now ask people commenting on articles to provide their full name for publication. Are you happy for your full name to appear with this comment? 
Peter Browne
From: Craig Thomler

Hi Peter, 
I didn't notice this policy change. I have now looked through your 'about' pages and see no mention of this - nor of your moderation policy. 
I would normally be happy for my full name to appear on my comment, and all my comments online are made on the basis that people can track down and find out who I am if they wanted to. 
However I'm not comfortable with a site that forces people to provide their full name publicly. This requirement prevents many people from commenting - those in witness protection programs, minors (such as 17yr olds), those concerned about stalkers, bullying, identity theft, privacy and so on. 
I see your policy as reducing the potential for open public dialogue without providing any safeguards. A backward step that only damages your reputation. 
It is also impossible to enforce anyway - people can use fake names and email accounts, thereby making your policy useless.
If your concern is around identity, have people register and use a unique username (which may or may not be their full name) - you still have their full name in the background, however they are not exposed publicly. 
If your concern is around inappropriate content, this should be managed through anti-spam and moderation techniques, potentially using the registration process above to allow you to identify and manage persistent offenders (where IP address isn't enough). Your moderation policy should be published so that commenters understand the basis on which they will be assessed. This is simply a matter of respect and setting the context of a discussion - similar approaches are used in face-to-face meetings. 
So in this case, I decline the publication of my comment and will not comment further on APO until your policy is adjusted to not require the publication of full names and is made easily accessible in your site along with your moderation guidelines. 
I will also be publishing this email in my blog to show the perils of requiring full names and linking to my post for Mumbrella: Toughen up - we need online anonymity ( 
From: Peter Browne

Dear Craig,
My view is that if writers use their own names then responders should too. The policy is at the bottom of each article, just above the comment field. 
Cheers, Peter

From: Craig Thomler
Hi Peter,
Thanks for pointing this out. I had looked for dedicated 'Community guidelines' 'Comments policy' or 'Moderation policy' pages and looked at your summary articles, where I can still register or log-in to comment, but do not see the same message.
I now have looked at a full article and can see the text. It remains unclear on what basis you moderate.
Here's an example of what I mean by a moderation policy:
I appreciate you believe that writers and commenters should have the same rights - although writers are often contributing for different reasons and have different agendas for expressing their views, some are even paid to do so, directly or indirectly (aka not necessarily by you). 
It will certainly be interesting to see how you decide to represent the writer when you receive an article from someone in a witness protection program or a whistleblower, and how you will treat comments. 

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