Thursday, July 15, 2010

The cost of anonymity

Roy Greenslade writes in The Guardian (Paper puts up a paywall for comments) that a US newspaper, The Sun Chronicle, has decided to impose a fee of 99 cents to comment on its net edition. They have seemingly got tired of anonymous abusive comments and ask readers to pay for the privilege of replying. You pay the fee by credit card and the name on the card is the name responsible for the comment. The idea is of course that if comments are traceable then people will be more responsible.

It could work but then again it could easily kill off all comments as even bona fide comments may be deterred by the extra work involved in commenting. The wreckers will simply move elsewhere but genuine readers could also be silenced. A relatively small proportion of sites that offer interaction actually have significant dialogue and it may not be wise to scare off your most faithful readers.

Anonymous abusive comments are one of the curses of the net. Stephen Downes has found a name for this, anonorage, in his comment on the Guardian story (Paper puts up a paywall for comments). Good discussions get destroyed and I know several people who have abandoned their websites in the face of incessant sabotage by spammers and wreckers. Free speech should of course include the right to make anonymous comments, though this right also includes the obligation not to sabotage others' free speech or integrity. I don't think the Sun Chronicle's move will change anything but there is a risk that unless we find smart ways of combatting the misuse of anonymity the web could drown in spam.


  1. I wonder - If an individual does pay - does that not create a contractual right to have the comment there? That is, if someone has a comment that may be regarded as racist or sexist or politically incorrect - and they are not concerned to have it on their credit card - does the Guardian then lose the discretion of NOT putting it up?
    I suppose it will depend on how they drafted the arrangement. I hope they had clever lawyers.

  2. Good point. I imagine that most of the spammers would not wish to reveal their identities. If someone does want to be abusive they must take responsibility for what they write. This method would certainly stop the most abusive stuff but unfortunately it could kill off all discussion.