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The Price of One Anonymous Comment? Your Job


gavelMost of us have blogs, right? How do you react to anonymous vulgar comments? Hit SPAM, right? Yeah, me too. And so did the Director of Social Media for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Kurt Greenbaum. The first time. But when the anonymous commenter again posted the single-word vulgarity, Greenbaum tracked his IP address—to a school.

Probably thinking he was reporting a misbehaving student, Greenbaum contacted the school and explained the situation. Six hours later, the school called back: they’d found the commenter—an employee. After they confronted him, the employee resigned.

Most of us probably have an intrinsic notion that the anonymous commenter and Greenbaum both acted inappropriately (although there was no way for Greenbaum to know he was turning in an employee and not a student)—but perhaps the more important question is whether they were acting legally.

Greenbaum, a Post-Dispatch employee, should be bound by the paper’s online privacy policy, which states:

We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information.

However, at the beginning of the policy, they stipulate that “Your IP address does not contain personally identifiable information, nor does it identify you personally.” So is that individual user information? Sounds like it’s not.

And the Post-Dispatch’s ToS is an exercise in CYA (they define “submission” to include comments):

  • You automatically waive any claim that any use of such content violates any of your rights, including privacy rights, publicity rights, moral rights or any other right, including the right to approve the way we use such content.
  • You are responsible for the content of all Submissions and acknowledge that third parties may hold you responsible for content related claims including libel, invasion of privacy, misappropriation of likeness and disclosure of confidential information.
  • You shall indemnify, defend and hold us, our parent company and our affiliated entities (including our officers, directors, owners, agents and employees) harmless from all liability and costs incurred by those indemnified in connection with any claim arising out of any breach by you of the above representations and warranties and for any claims related to the content or your Submissions.

And, naturally, the ToS stipulates that using the site to “upload, post, email, transmit or otherwise make available content that is harmful to minors in any way, or that is harassing, harmful, threatening, abusive, vulgar, obscene, defamatory, libelous, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable” violates the ToS, too.

And how were Anon’s actions illegal? Well, setting aside possible obscenity charges (while legally problematic, “obscenity” is not protected under the First Amendment), the school probably also has policies—policies that dictate the use of school resources. Most likely, this comment was made on school time, from a school computer, using the school’s Internet connection. Somehow, I can’t imagine there’s a provision in the policy that allows for use of school resources for posting vulgar comments online. By violating these policies, the employee could face discipline or even termination.

What do you think? Would these policies hold up in court?

  • http://hcginformation.blogspot.com/ Brian M. Connole

    I think he should lose his job. Unless it was the employee’s job to go and place vulgar comments on the internet. I think that he needs to grow up, but I don’t think he should have to face criminal charges.
    .-= Brian M. Connole´s last blog ..Bowel Movements On The HCG Diet =-.

    • Jerry O

      Kurt did not get him fired he got himself fired. The teacher had to sign an “acceptable use policy” to use the computer period. The computer is the property of the school dept not his.
      I just retired as a computer tech from a middle school and I wrote to the teachers twice a year with this quote: IF you don’t want you name in the news papers don’t do something stupid. Every thing you do on the computer is public info to tax payers.
      So do we want your tax money to support a screw off? I don’t . It’s that simple.
      Jerry

  • http://techcrunchies.com Anand Srinivasan

    Ok, I don’t see a reason Greenbaum got so ticked off..Anyway, even if he actually was, I think he did a favor to the anon by taking the direct route. Taking a legal route would have caused the anon employee much more trouble..
    .-= Anand Srinivasan´s last blog ..Malfunction Rate of Laptops by Manufacturer =-.

  • Sum1

    Whether we like it or not, one can say anything he or she wants online. Sure, there may be some better or more diplomatic ways of saying things, but unless your in mainland China, you should get the right of posting a comment (even if it’s vulgar) and not have the writer track you down like a felon, making you confess and strip you of your job just for not agreeing.

    • http://www.davidwalker.tv David Walker

      Agreeing and disagreeing with bloggers does not constitute getting vulgar. If you feel you have the right to say whatever you want online, get your own blog and vent, but to leave nasty and vulgar insults? What does that say about you? I’m happy that Greenbaum took it upon himself to track the commenter. As for Anon being stripped of his job, that was the school’s decision because he had violated their policies. Anyone immature enough to post vulgar comments would still be immature enough not to want to face up to the consequences of their actions.
      .-= David Walker´s last blog ..David Walker – Broadcasting Rockstar! =-.

  • http://www.seoconsultantsdenver.thewebinfocenter.com MAS

    In the end, there are no secrets. Just like anonymity is a myth, unattributed comments can almost always be tracked down.

    In this instance, it seems that the school was contacted not to report a particular incident, but perhaps to suggest better supervision of its on-line environment? Just a thought.

  • http://www.marketingpilgrim.com Jordan McCollum

    We’re not actually allowed to say whatever we want. It’s a myth of free speech—not all speech is protected by the First Amendment (as I mentioned in the article), and actually the First Amendment protections only bar Congress from impeding lawful speech. They can’t stop private entities—like a newspaper website—from proscribing what you can say using their site as your soapbox.

    And remember, he wasn’t stripped of his job; he resigned (no one seems to know if he was forced to resign, but in the end it was still his action)

    I think MAS may be right—there was no way Greenbaum could have known this was an employee.

    • http://www.davidwalker.tv David Walker

      Sorry Jordan, I missed that the first time. Good for Anon to resign then, maybe he hadn’t expected to be found out and it was embarrassing. All too often, people hide behind masks of anonymity to do something they wouldn’t want anyone to see them do. It’s a shame really, because if he had something important to say, he should have said it without resorting to vulgarity. Bloggers are professionals and don’t mind positive criticism or a heated discussion but just plain vulgarity? No.
      .-= David Walker´s last blog ..David Walker – Broadcasting Rockstar! =-.

  • jlee

    Considering that Greenbaum’s supporters number in the single digits after roughly 300 responses, it might behoove the lot of you to seek some perspective on this issue. Sometimes you’re the shining beacon of light on the hill, but oftentimes you’re not.

    Leaving aside the question of ethics, this is why Greenbaum violated the privacy policy.

    1) “Your IP address does not contain personally identifiable information, nor does it identify you personally”

    That statement is false. The courts have allowed the RIAA to sue people for years using IP addresses as an identifier.

    2) “We will not share individual user information with third parties unless the user has specifically approved the release of that information.”

    The information that was given to the school included the IP address, time stamp, and post contents of an individual user. Mr. Greenbaum handed over *all* of the information that he had in his possession. Regardless of what statement 1 claims, this information is in fact sufficient for identification.

    I suspect Greenbaum himself realizes that releasing the IP address could get him in trouble. He attempts to make the specious claim that he didn’t need to tell the school the IP address because they know their own IP address. Unfortunately, he has also disclosed that he forwarded the WordPress alert email to the school — and this alert contains the poster’s IP address.

    Really, there are just two lessons to be learned here. The first is that organizations should leave sysadmin jobs to their system administrators. The second is that boomers should not be annointed “Director of Social Media”.

  • KilgoreTrout

    Ok I would like to get some information out there that may not yet be known.
    I will redact out the offensive word from the quote so as not to offend any parents of 13 year olds out there but the following is the entire quote from the teacher who lost his/her job due in part to Mr. Greenbaums irresponsible actions:

    “I have eaten many different animals (or at least parts of them), including rattlesnake, crocodile, alligator, iguana,
    turtle, and many different molluscs, arthropods, echinoids, and whatnot from sea or river. I have also eaten squirrel,
    bear, dog, and cat. So, I can say I have eaten p****, and you can interpret or misinterpret it any way you want. Oh,
    and woof-woof, too.”

    Now from where I stand the word given within the context of the above quote as sourced from http://seclists.org/fulldisclosure/2009/Nov/216 if accurate represents an interpretation on the part of Mr. Greenbaum of the use of a vulgarity when there may not have been one in actual use or even intended. I cite as example the numerous episodes of both Fawlty Towers and Are You Being Served? and Are You Being Served Again? that have used that particular word to mean the feline animal and that the “in joke” justifying the use of the word is that it is used particularly as a jibe at the Brits American counterparts who have slanged the word from its original meaning in to something of a vulgarity. Now assuming for the moment that the source is correct, the context is NOT a one word quote as has been reported. This in my mind makes what Mr. Greenbaum did a vendetta strike at someone and it is entirely possible that what Mr. Greenbaum did the result of a long standing feud with this particular Anon Poster. That being the case this makes Mr. Greenbaums attack defamatory in nature and even if he did not violate the privacy policy what he did was defamatory and retaliatory in nature and for this he is liable for damages.

  • http://doccampbell.wordpress.com Doc Campbell

    Some coherent arguments have been offered, that call into question the appropriateness of Greenbaum’s actions in this case. Personally, I feel that he was justified, and pursued the issue in a prudent manner. As to whether or not he stood on firm LEGAL ground, perhaps we shall find out. However, even if it turns out that the information he provided to the school surpassed that which he should legally have supplied, I still don’t feel that he carries any responsibility for this nitwit having lost (read: voluntarily surrendered) his job. The teacher’s own actions were the cause of that, both by his irresponsible use of school property, and his voluntary departure, rather than facing the embarrassment.
    I would further add that if Greenbaum’s actions ARE found to be inappropriate in any way, then the laws need to be changed!

  • http://www.seoconsultants.asia Victor

    This subject is one of my pet peeves right now, individuals hiding behind the “anonymous” nature of the Internet and behaving in ways that they simply would not do in face to face communications balanced against the “expectation” by some that because the other party is running a business they are bound by some “higher ethics”

    Some “commenters” here actually think that there was a voliation of privacy policy because Greenbaum’s reported abuse of their resource, wow ! That’s sad only in America would people get away with that attitude.
    .-= Victor ´s last blog ..SEO Consultants Asia Directory =-.

  • http://www.freewarebb.com Freeware

    What’s so special about this one guy? Why is no-one reporting the racial and sexual insults anyone can see on YouTube day in day out? I used YouTube a while ago for entertainment, but it’s now become a breeding ground for all manner of people I would consider far more of a threat to an online community than this guy!. The internet is fast becoming a place where people are able to hide in corners and spout their unethical dribble and they’re getting away with it in the name of profit.

    If we did half the things on the street that many people seem to do online, we’d be locked up. Time for common sense to kick in here and reclaim the net.
    .-= Freeware´s last blog ..Adsense sharing facility =-.