Saturday, April 23, 2011

For a free press, you must abandon your privacy

I tried commenting on the Ottawa Sun's new website, where they use this assheaded "Disqus" platform that tries to be a hell of a lot more than it is.

After typing my comment, I clicked on the "post as" button. Up came a dialog asking me to sign in using my Facebook, Twitter, Google, OpenID, or other account. I tried to sign in with my RealGrouchy google account, and it asked me if I wanted to remember this authentication (i.e. Google account with Disqus) or just do it this one time. It displayed "[name]" and I clicked "OK" expecting it to take me back to the comment form to customize how my name will appear and preview my comment.

Instead, it posted my real name, which was linked to I do not associate my real name with RealGrouchy; it is an alias. I have plenty of other accounts to which I associate my real name, and if I wanted to use my real name I would have used one of them. The Ottawa Sun's "Sun and the City" blog (managed by Sue Sherring and Jon Willing) has posted comments before signed as RealGrouchy and linking to this blog, as has Citizen blogger David Reevely and even Ken Gray. This is because RealGrouchy has a reputation for making cogent (if sometimes aggressive) comments about relevant matters. I can be contacted to defend my comments, just as can those who sign with their real names. Sure it's an alias, but I could just as well have used an alias that looked like a real name and people would be none the wiser (actually, they'd be actively deceived).

Getting back to the Ottawa Sun/Disqus/Google website comments, I couldn't even access "" to change these settings because Google thinks my browser isn't new enough (it uses the same fucking engine as Firefox 4). When I am finally able to log in with Internet Explorer, if I change what name is associated with my account it doesn't change the previous comment. I can't customize any settings for my "google profile" account because it says I have to create a public profile to even access the settings, and I doubt it will help.

I've edited the comment, and sent a message to the Sun through their feedback form. That also doesn't appear to be working right, so I sent an e-mail to a couple people too explaining the situation and the nuances that should be investigated to improve the integrity of the system (I managed to temper it down to what I think was a rather polite message, from an angry "fuck you and your stupid comment system" type of thing, which wouldn't really help to encourage them to help me).

The Sun seems to be opening itself up to liability here, since it is allowing private contact information to be posted on their site without express authorization from the individual. That is in direct contravention to Canada's privacy legislation. Even if Disqus and Google aren't Canadian companies, it's still being published on the Sun's website.

The irony is that they instituted this comment thing to protect themselves from liability. Remember how Ken Gray always harps on about 'not being able to verify the identity of every commenter'? The Citizen also now requires you to log in to comment on their site, so I have ceased contributing to discussions on their site. Had they had a simple form that asked for name, required (but promised not to publish) an e-mail address, and offered the ability to add a URL, I could have commented and attributed my comment precisely as I wanted it to be published.

While I'll give the Sun the benefit of the doubt, since their new website is only a few days old and still in "beta", the way things are moving it seems that the mainstream, corporate media not only wants to store all sorts of information on your computer in the form of cookies (who knows how much information it tracks about you), but it also wants to take what information it does know about you from shared services and publish it against your will.

In essence, you must sell your soul and waive your right to privacy in order to participate in the information economy.

No wonder the comments sections on news sites are filled with posts by fucktards.

- RG>


David Reevely said...

I haven't struggled through the Sun's commenting system myself, but in fairness to them, it's probably the fucktard problem they're trying to solve.

At Greater Ottawa, my ideal has always been a freewheeling comments policy that allows basically anything short of actual libel as long as it has some intellectual merit somewhere in it. You can be really mean to someone, in this model, as long as some part of your post makes some kind of honest point. Lots of people use regular aliases like yours, and as far as I know I haven't had a problem with others appropriating them.

For the most part, this seems to work well, but at the same time I know I've been taken advantage of by sock puppets shilling for particular politicians -- often, they (or maybe there's just one of them) even offer up full names, just ones that are so generic that they can't be confirmed or traced.

Those bother me so much that several times I've been on the brink of switching my settings so that you have to log in to post a comment. I know the number of comments would plunge, but I'd know that every one of those that remained would come from a verifiable real human being. It's not a trade I've made yet, but it's been really, really tempting.

Blogs generally get a higher calibre of commenter than random news stories, too. Most news-story commenters seem to be pretty horrible people. I very much understand the temptation to shut those out, even at the cost of losing some of the good ones.

RealGrouchy said...

Thanks, David, for your thoughtful comments.

By "fucktard", I'm referring to the ones that actually do get through--the ones who spout xenophobic comments about anyone who isn't a heterosexual middle-aged caucasian living in the suburbs and driving their car through hours of traffic each day with a stop at Tim Horton's. Like how if CBC posts an article about someone being sexually assaulted, they can't allow comments because it will be filled with idiots calling her a slut, etc.

The extreme stuff is sometimes more tolerable because it's pretty clear that they're lies. It's also good to be reminded that racism, etc. are still around (which you wouldn't know by just reading the letters section of a newspaper). In theory, this is a free and open system where you can respond to and rebut these asinine comments to 'correct the record' so to speak, but in practice there are so many that it becomes pointless for reasonable people to try to rebut them.

The result is that only the fucktards end up commenting, and the whole point of a comments section--to have a rational discussion about an issue--is negated. (This is why I don't mind it when I find a CBC article is closed to commenting) Any casual user without an opinion reading the comments gets a sense that these bigoted comments reflect the norm.

An analogous situation is a friend of mine who listens to a lot of Lowell Green and often comes to our circle of friends repeating the uninformed things he heard on the radio. Even though the rest of us know the issue enough to explain the inevitable faulty reasoning, he's still got that first impression from the radio.

I think the best comment moderation system out there (for a site that gets dozens or hundreds of comments per article) is the one used by Slashdot (see wikipedia summary. It allows anyone to comment, but only the good stuff rises to the top. You can read as many or as few of them as you want, and flag ones that are insightful, funny, etc. to be promoted or hidden from your view. (I don't see why so many news sites let you rate posts but don't give a practical way of doing anything with these ratings)

As for your blog, yes you get sock puppets, and you call them out when you see them. You also engage in discussions with the more rational commenters. That's why I keep coming back. I'd like to be able to subscribe to the comments, but whatevs.

- RG>

Alex deVries said...

For years now, I've been thinking what a waste of time it is to read the comments on most local news articles. There's a lot of right-wing people out there with time to comment on them.

The Sun's far worse than anything else, and their change in their authentication just forced my abandonment and I no longer waste my time dealing with the Glenn Becks of