Outing of Commenter Raises Online Privacy Concerns

Published December 28, 2009

The revelation of the identity of an anonymous commenter at a newspaper’s Web site has raised questions about privacy rights on the Internet—especially since the revelation cost the commenter his job.

Kurt Greenbaum, social media editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, deleted a comment in November that referred vulgarly and insultingly to a part of the female anatomy. When the commenter returned to make the comment again, Greenbaum did a little detective work.

He tracked down the Internet Protocol address and found the commenter logged into the Post-Dispatch site from a local private school. Greenbaum shared the results of his investigation with the school, which confronted the employee, who resigned on the spot.

Ethicality Questioned
The sacking of the school employee over online activity he thought was anonymous has raised ethical questions that are growing increasingly vexing in the digital age, regarding whether commenters are entitled to anonymity on the Web even when they use their work computers.

“I think it would depend on what the workplace agreements are, if it’s contingent that this prohibits this,” said Paul Soutar, investigative reporter for the Kansas Policy Institute and editor of KansasWatchdog.org. “Unfortunately, when we use other people’s equipment and time we give our consent to certain levels of control. That’s another ‘buyer beware’ issue when we agree to a job. They usually come with strings attached.

“We need to be good citizens not only of our public government body but [also] of our employment contract,” Soutar added. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of employers that have rules like that. It ought to be their right to set rules like that to control their business.”

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.