Montana Standard newspaper cancels plan to retroactively unmask commenters

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Last month, the Montana Standard (Butte) announced that it would retroactively unmask commenters. Right now, Montana Standard users have to provide their real names to register as commenters, but they can also add "screen names," and their comments go up under the screen namse. Starting Jan. 1, comments will be posted under the users' real names, and all old comments will be switched over to show the real names. Commenters were given until Dec. 26 to ask that all their comments be deleted, and the newspaper said that it would notify commenters about the option. But many commenters might have abandoned their old email addresses, and/or stopped reading the paper (e.g., if they had moved out of town), and wouldn't learn in time that they would be unmasked.

This struck many people—including me—as quite bad, especially given the Standard's Privacy Policy:

To make use of certain features on our Services (such as contests, story comments, letters to the editor, personalized web pages and other interactive forums and blogs) visitors need to register and to provide certain information as part of the registration or participation process. We may ask, for example, for your name, e-mail address [and other information] . . .

We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information. In some cases, however, we may provide information to legal officials as described in "Compliance with Legal Process" below. . . .

Of course, our use of information gathered while the current policy is in effect will always be consistent with the current policy, even if we change that policy later.

On Tuesday, the Montana Standard announced that it wouldn't retroactively unmask commenters after all:

Because of certain limitations in our web site's content management system, The Standard initially announced that unless we received requests from individual commenters for previous comments to be removed, earlier comments would as of Jan. 1 be displayed with real names.

We are concerned that such a change would not be fair to those who are either unaware of the pending change or have not contacted us.

So instead, all comments in the system as of Dec. 31 will be removed, and going forward, on Jan. 1, all new comments will be posted with real names in accordance with the Standard's new policy.

While we regret losing the earlier comments, we believe it's a better result than having people's names on previous comments revealed. . . .

We appreciate the feedback about the change in policy and look forward to a better commenting environment on