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100 articles – ‘Is it legal for an editor to unmask an anonymous commenter?’

If you submit an anyonmous comment online, do you have the right to have your anonymity protected? That's the question explored in this latest selection in our '100 articles' that every journalist should read about journalism project.

Is it legal for an editor to unmask an anonymous commenter? by Rob Arcamona

Published in MediaShift – 10 December 2009

It’s an old idea: just because you can doesn’t mean you should. So just because you can leave an anonymous abusive comment on a newspaper’s website doesn’t mean you should. But even though an editor has the ability to unmask a commenter, do they have the right to do so – legally or ethically?”

Spurred by the case of a man being fired from his job because of an anonymous comment on an article, Rob Arcamona – an award-winning journalist now studying law – tackles the ethical and legal implications behind editors revealing the identities of people who comment on their websites.

The issue is one of precedent. If editors are allowed to reveal identities based on abusive language or antisocial behaviour, does that infringe upon the reader’s right or willingness to comment anonymously in other situations? Newspapers respect sources’ right to privacy when quoting them in articles; why should editors be allowed to take that right to privacy away from others? It’s easy to support trolls getting their comeuppance, but what about employees wishing to expose somewhat-shady business practices in a lowscale way?

Despite Arcamona’s background as a journalist, law student, and freedom of speech advocate, he never states a definitive position in the article – but he does present us with some very interesting arguments.

You can find more of Rob Arcamona’s MediaShift articles here.

Jarrod Strauch is a journalist studying at La Trobe University. You can read more of his work on his Blanc Garçon blog.

Want to contribute to our list of the 100 articles every journalist should read about journalism? Full details here.

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