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The Courts

Unmasking Blog Commenters Not a Huge Threat To Freedom 105

Posted by Soulskill
from the hiding-behind-the-internet dept.
Frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton writes with his take on a recent court decision about the rights of online commenters. "Although a court has ruled that the police can subpoena the identities of users who posted comments in a newspaper's blog, I think this is not as big of a threat to journalistic integrity as it might seem. And in any case when the judge ruled against the privacy rights of 'bloggers,' he didn't actually mean 'bloggers." Read on for the rest of Bennett's thoughts.

After writing that a Virginia court made an error in saying that spoofing an IP address in e-mail headers was analogous to using a "pseudonym," and that an Ontario court was wrong in saying that an IP address could be subpoenaed by a court because it was no more secret than personal information like a "home address," I think that the latest court ruling against online anonymity — an Illinois judge ordering a newspaper to reveal the identities of people who posted comments on its blog — is not as big of a threat to online privacy, and is not apparently based on any misconceptions about how the Internet works. However, the ruling has the potential to frighten bloggers more than necessary (as well as possibly set a bad precedent for future courts if they don't read the decision closely enough) because the ruling uses the word "bloggers" repeatedly to refer to what everyone else calls "blog commenters."

Police had asked the Alton Telegraph to reveal the identities of five people who had posted comments in the newspaper's blog which indicated they might have knowledge relevant to an ongoing murder investigation. The newspaper sued to avoid being forced to hand over the commenters' identities, saying that they were "news sources" protected under Illinois's newspaper shield law. Judge Richard Tognarelli ruled that blog commenters did not count as "sources" under the shield law, and allowed the police to go forward in obtaining the identity of two of the commenters, but denied the request to unmask three others, on the grounds that those commenters did not appear to have information relevant to the case.

To consider the relevant questions separately:

Is this legally correct?

Every time I raise a question like this, it provokes the ire of law students and lawyers who say that judges are the real experts on what is legally correct, and it's not appropriate for lay people to comment. As I never tire of saying, if judges are really "experts" in a sense that lay people are not, then it should be possible to put 10 judges in separate rooms, present them with the same facts of the same case, and have most of them independently come to the same conclusion about the correct answer, with a higher degree of accuracy than lay people would be able to reach the same conclusion. If this is not the case, then the judges are not playing the role of "experts" so much as "designated decision-makers," and it's perfectly fair for lay people to analyze whether the judges' reasoning appears correct.

In this case, the judge simply said that blog commenters are not news "sources" in the sense described by the law. The text of the shield law (735 ILCS 5/8-901) defines a "source" as "the person or means from or through which the news or information was obtained." Now, if you were to parse this super-literally, then the blog commenters could be considered "sources" because they are posting "information" which can be "obtained" by the reporters who later go back and read through the blog comments. But if you were to be that literal about it, then anybody who publishes "information" anywhere at all, including someone who posts a timetable of train departure times on their Web page, could be considered a "source" for information used by a reporter. Clearly the legislature did not intend for the term "source" to include all people who publish information anywhere under the sun (just because that information is technically available to reporters just like it's available to everyone else), or they would have said so. So it seems reasonable to assume that when the law refers to sources from whom reporters "obtain information," it refers to the way in which reporters normally obtain information in their role as reporters obtaining information from sources — that is, the source privately communicating with a reporter with some expectation of anonymity, hoping the reporter can use the information provided for research on a future story. Blog commenters do not fit that definition since (a) they are posting publicly, and (b) they are responding to a story that has already been written.

The judge also noted that the shield law is not absolute, and even for individuals who are considered "sources" under the law, their interest in maintaining anonymity has to be weighed against the importance of the information being sought. Judge Tognarelli wrote, "The Telegraph has an interest in protecting its online blogger's identities while the State has an interest in prosecuting someone who has allegedly murdered a child." That sounded to me like sarcasm on first reading, but actually I think he's just being logically rigorous.

So in this case, I think that you really could probably put 10 different judges in separate rooms and present them with the same facts and arguments, and have most of them (although probably not an overwhelming majority) come to the same conclusion. On the other hand, I would bet that you could ask 10 reasonably smart lay people to analyze the case, and about the same proportion of them would come to the same conclusion as well.

Is this logically correct?

By that I mean, could the arguments made in this ruling be extended to a conclusion that is clearly absurd?

Sometimes a ruling can be apparently in line with the law, but would have implications that would be absurd if carried only one step further. For example, in one of my spam cases in Small Claims court where I brought a case on behalf of Peacefire as a Washington corporation that I owned, a judge ruled that I couldn't represent Peacefire because the corporation was a separate legal entity. This would seem to be in line with the legal principle that only lawyers who are licensed to practice law are allowed to represent entities other than themselves; non-lawyers can only represent themselves. But carried one step further, the same principle leads to a conclusion that makes no sense: If corporations cannot be represented in Small Claims court by their owners, then since lawyers are not allowed in Small Claims court either, the logical conclusion would be that corporations cannot be represented by anybody in Small Claims court. By that logic, I (as an individual) could sue a corporation for any reason, and since nobody would be allowed to defend the case, I would have to win by default! Since that conclusion is obviously absurd, at least one of those two rules (the rule against lawyers in Small Claims, or the rule against people in Small Claims representing entities other than themselves) would have to be relaxed, and in the interests of keeping costs down, it makes more sense to let individuals represent corporations that they own. This is probably why every other judge so far has made the opposite ruling, that I am allowed to represent a corporation in Small Claims court if I'm the owner.

Does Judge Tognarelli's ruling lead to any absurd conclusions? I don't think so. In fact, the opposite conclusion could have led to an absurd result, if the judge had ruled that commenters posting on the newspaper's blog could seek protection as "news sources." If blog commenters were protected for comments they posted on the newspaper's blog, why shouldn't they be protected for comments they post on their own Web site somewhere else, since the two situations are logically equivalent? In both cases, you're speaking to the entire world, not providing information privately to a reporter. By extension, anybody who says anything, anywhere, at any time, would be protected as a "news source" if a reporter could later find a record of what that person said. While there are possibly merits to that idea — that all anonymous speakers should be protected from being unmasked — it's clearly not what the legislature meant, since they were legislating protection for "sources," not "everybody."

When the judge said "bloggers," did he mean "bloggers"?

No. This is the biggest flaw in what otherwise appears to be a logically and technically literate ruling: The court repeatedly used "bloggers" to refer to blog commenters:

"The subpoena seeks identifying information for bloggers who voluntarily left comments on the website..."

"Here, it is clear that the 'reporter' did not use any information from the bloggers..."

"The Telegraph has an interest in protecting its online blogger's identities..."

That's fine as long as everybody understands what the judge really meant. However, if an actual blogger — one who publishes quasi-news articles on a blog and could be considered a reporter in the traditional sense — ever has to use the court system to protect their identity from being unmasked, there is a danger that a court could cite the current case as precedent and say that "bloggers don't count as news sources." I would hope that a future court would read the current decision carefully enough to realize that it refers to blog commenters and not actual bloggers, but there's no guarantee.

Is this bad for civil liberties?

It depends. I think that all the court really said was that while bona fide news sources are protected under the shield law, the shield law does not apply to all people who post public information that might potentially be used for a news story someday. That was already the de facto legal situation that most of us were in — if you post something in a public forum that makes the police think you have information that could be relevant to the prosecution of a crime, they can probably get a court to unmask your identity with a subpoena.

It may be tempting to think that courts should interpret the shield law more broadly, but be careful what you wish for — if the shield law got diluted to the point where it applied to everybody, then that increases the chances that courts would carve out more exceptions to it or the legislature would rescind it, since neither the courts nor the legislature generally think that everybody deserves legally guaranteed anonymity all of the time.

If you do think that everybody — or, at least, you — deserves guaranteed anonymity for online postings, you can use tools like Tor to make your identity completely untraceable. I would guess that none of the blog commenters in this case went to that trouble.

In fact, one of the two commenters whose identity was ordered unmasked by the court, used the handle "mrssully." What if that turns out to be a woman whose last name is Sully, and who could have been trivially identified if the police had called the murder defendants' friends and acquaintances and asked, "Hey, who do you think 'Mrs. Sully' is?" The court ruling said that "the Sheriff's Office contacted 117 different individuals regarding the incident" and that "it would be a very expensive and a 'monumental task' to re-interview all of those witnesses." To re-interview all of them, yes. But it would not be a monumental task to have a junior member of the police force call up each of the 117 phone numbers for the witnesses and leave a message saying, "Hey, do you know a 'Mrs. Sully' who is connected to the defendant?" If someone calls back and says Yes, then maybe you've found who you're looking for; if not, then you've only wasted about two hours trying (at sixty seconds per phone number), so go ahead with the subpoena. If it turns out that "Mrs. Sully" is someone who could have been found in this way, then as a taxpayer and as someone who supports law enforcement at least insofar as they're conducting murder investigations, I might reasonably ask why the police didn't do that first.

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Unmasking Blog Commenters Not a Huge Threat To Freedom

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  • by vivaoporto (1064484) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:04AM (#28025695)
    It would be great if Slashdot had a new section called editorial, so the Staff and their frequent contributors could post op-ed pieces like this one. It would be better categorized, separating actual news from opinion, and give users the option to read or disregard it.
    • by Shakrai (717556) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:08AM (#28025751) Journal

      separating actual news from opinion

      Is such a thing possible on the internets?

      • by Mister Whirly (964219) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @12:28PM (#28027041) Homepage
        Is such a thing possible anywhere?? Most of the time news=opinions and vice-versa. As long as humans are covering the news, there will always be a bias.
        • by hags2k (1152851) <hags2k@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @12:34PM (#28027149)

          Is such a thing possible anywhere?? Most of the time news=opinions and vice-versa. As long as humans are covering the news, there will always be a bias.

          I'm sure we can establish a standard for unbiased news. We just need an objective definition of "objective".

        • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

          by PopeRatzo (965947) *

          As long as humans are covering the news, there will always be a bias.

          As well there should be.

          It's a joke to hear right-wing radio loudmouths with shows syndicated on 800 stations talk about how the "mainstream media" is "biased".

          There's a difference, anyway, between bias and a news organization writing a story that leads to a conclusion.

          The most ridiculous behavior that I've seen media organizations, especially news outlets, engage in after decades of the efforts by the far right to "work the refs" is when

          • by Shakrai (717556)

            Why are you limiting your criticism to right-wing news outlets? On at least a few issues the so-called "mainstream media" is biased in one direction or another. Gun rights in particular are rarely given a fair play in the mainstream media.

            • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

              Which media is "mainstream"? Is Rush Limbaugh, on more than 800 stations nationwide "mainstream"? Is Sean Hannity who's the biggest name on the biggest cable network "mainstream"?

              I'm sorry, the fragmentation of the media has made descriptors like "mainstream" meaningless.

              For the right-wing, "mainstream media" means anybody who doesn't agree with them. Just the way everyone who doesn't agree with them is a "socialist" or "godless".

              If there is such a thing as the "mainstream media" it's the media that's ow

              • by Shakrai (717556)

                I think your message is more revealing of your own biases than whatever actual biases the so-called mainstream media may have. During the campaign it seemed to me that the media was going out of it's way to push the Democratic/Obama message. Don't attribute that observation to any bias on my part either because I had that observation going all the way back to the primaries when I took a week off work and campaigned for Obama. He was my man and I still felt like the media was giving him an undue advantage

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          There will always be a bias, but there's a long way from CNN/FOX to neutral.

          In any event, Slashdot is a news aggregate, I'm not sure we should expect it to have unbiased coverage. Honestly I read the articles looking for ammunition, and read the comments looking for good arguments. It's not a huge stretch that occasionally good arguments will make the headlines, and I'm not sure it devalues the site.

          I only worry that the bias is sometimes so far out that it caters to people who are at times, not very glued

      • separating actual news from opinion

        Is such a thing possible on the internets?

        There's actual news on Slashdot?

    • by hansraj (458504) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:10AM (#28025779)

      You want summaries to just be summaries and not editorials? You must be new here.

      Oh, and prepare for the karma burn mate! ;-)

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Why was this modded offtopic? The editorial section of any major newspaper is the first to grab many folks' attention. Edit: mods with sense - less funny and more insightful for parent post, please!

      The first poster may or may not have said that out of spite, as Bennett Hassleton is clearly in love with his own writing, but it's a good point. It would be win-win for those who enjoy editorials and those who don't.
      • by PopeRatzo (965947) *

        Bennett Hassleton is clearly in love with his own writing

        I don't know about Bennett Hassleton (good name, though) but the best writers always are.

    • by Hatta (162192) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:24AM (#28026027) Journal

      Slashdot has a section for op-ed pieces. It's called Slashdot.

    • I think they call that "Idle" here.

    • by queenb**ch (446380) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:48AM (#28026397) Homepage Journal

      My personal feelings agree with you. However, I find this to be incredibly valuable as this is an area that I deal in quite a bit. A friend of mine runs a quite popular local web site that I write for as a reporter. Many of the artciles deal with political corruption; negligence, malfeasance, or just outright stupidity of elected officials; and now we're going after the school board for just plain being tards.

      It's quite useful for us to have the ability to harvest comments off our news blog for further investgation. However, I'm going to put up a disclaimer and point people to a web form that will email me. Set up CAPTCA so that the bots don't drive me insane and we should all be good.

    • A better question is: why is Slashdot giving this guy a soapbox in the first place? He's really not got a lot of insight into the legal stuff. Take for example, his "Judge Rules That I Own Slashdot" [slashdot.org] piece, where not only he proceeds to blame the judge for his own very badly argued case, but remains completely oblivious throughout to the flaws in his argument.

      For example, Haselton consistently expects that the judge must accept his unsubstantiated statements about the facts of the case as true, and dismi

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:08AM (#28025753)

    Finally, I'll be able to give that f-tard a piece of my mind.

    Oh. Shit. I have seen the enemy...and he is us.

    -AC

    • Oh. Shit. I have seen the enemy...and he is us.

      -AC

      Funny in appearance, but quite insightful. Because the real identity of anonymous commenters is "we, the people".

      Take away anonymity, and you take away the right of "we, the people" to express our opinions without fearing retaliation. This is what unmasking commenters is really about: Protecting corporations from public opinion.

  • Won't affect me... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rednip (186217) <[rednip] [at] [gmail.com]> on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:10AM (#28025773) Journal
    I always post from random free access points, using a wireless nic I bought with cash!
    • by FudRucker (866063) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:21AM (#28025981)
      you should have posted as Anonymous Coward you insensitive clod!
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by stararmy (1541581)
      Unfortunately for you, Mr. Rednip, most free access points are near businesses, and most businesses have camera surveillance. True anonymity is hard to come by.
      • by StikyPad (445176)

        There are no less than 7 open access points reachable from the comfort of my home. I can't say for sure whether or not their owners want to share them, but they're certainly available.

        On a related note, I have to wonder how many people are inadvertently connecting to their neighbor's wireless networks, especially with ambiguous SSIDs like "LinkSys".

    • by Joe U (443617)

      Yeah, I just change my wireless MAC address randomly. It's cheaper.

  • by erroneus (253617) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:11AM (#28025785) Homepage

    People have the right to anonymous free speech. Without that right, people can more easily harass the speakers into silence. And in this case, isn't this quite likely what is being sought?

    • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:17AM (#28025889)

      And in this case, isn't this quite likely what is being sought?

      It's a murder case and the commenter seemed to have knowledge of the crime. If, and that's a big 'if', this ruling is limited to similar circumstances (i.e. commenter seem to have intimate knowledge of a serious crime), I see no problem with it. Like most potentially abusive laws/rulings, it is the 'potentially' that worries me.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      which constitution are you reading wherein a right to anonymity is extended? The right to privacy is only provided by reading between the lines in a most tenuous fashion. Anonymity is certainly not a right.

      Anonymity would allow you to be slandered with no recourse against the perpetrator. It would allow your business to be undone by an anonymous competitor's false advertisement. Does that sound like a good thing?

        • by rjhubs (929158)

          I'm sorry but the idea that it is the government's responsibility to protect your anonymity in a public forum is ridiculous.

          I don't even feel like its necessary to mention the constitution, as it is only designed to declare the responsibilities of the government, we have all sorts of rights and freedoms that aren't listed in that document.

          Sure the founders of the US used to publish documents under pseudonyms.. And we are free to write things on the internet without signing our real name.

          However the rea

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by zeropointburn (975618)

        Never does it say that the people have no right to anonymity. How exactly can we have free speech, religion, assembly, etc. if we are not anonymous? Since the issue is not addressed in the Constitution, that right falls to the people. Since the people have never been very interested in defending that right, the states and the federal government have encroached upon it in typical stepwise, 'think of the children', well-meaning, but ultimately misguided increments.
        This decision is logical, though it

        • Why is the right to anonymous speech necessary to have free speech? We already have laws against threatening others, or inciting imminent lawless action. If you are concerned that your speech might make people want to attack you, we already have legal consequences and protections revolving around that. Anonymity is not necessary.

        • by Feyshtey (1523799)

          How exactly can we have free speech, religion, assembly, etc. if we are not anonymous?

          How, exactly, does one 'assemble' anonymously? I'd like to see you show up at the Republican National Convention in a ski mask.

          You are protected by the Constitution to speak your mind regardless of your anonymity, or lack thereof.

          I know the argument is a fear of reprisals for what you might have to say. But how far can anyone act on what you say without verification of the facts. You can claim crimes, or unethical behavior, or challenge the status quo, but without your name to back up your word, what

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Is someone just modding every reply in this thread "funny"?
  • My girlfriend lives in a big apartment building with a really crappy wireless router for the tenants in the basement, we're on the 4th floor. Currently we're using some wireless connection from a nearby home, and I can't imagine that I'm the only person in the world doing this. Then there are people who browse through a proxy. Did anyone tell them that the IP address of a blog commenter is quite useless?

    • Topper (Score:3, Informative)

      by sakdoctor (1087155)

      That's nothing!

      I aggregate all my neighbours wifi (open or otherwise) into one large, fault tolerant pipe.

    • by Feyshtey (1523799)
      Ah, yes. It's the "My brother was playing on my account! Honest!", defense.

      Sorry, couldn't resist.

      I do see what you're saying, and it has some merit. But if they can narrow down a poster to an apartment building, they can probably further narrow it to a person in that building. It would depend on the particular case in question. But as a general rule....
  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:28AM (#28026071) Journal
    Bennett, I'm sure you have some nice insight into things, but you've got to change your writing style if you want to communicate your ideas effectively to more people.

    Your sentences are too long, with too many interwoven clauses. If you need to write a 60-word sentence with twelve clauses, you'd probably benefit from reorganizing your thoughts. This makes it easier for people to follow what you're writing.

    You could also consider the utility of lists. They work very well for clear communication when many concepts are being discussed.

    In short, Hemingway is a poor model for clear writing, especially when writing non-fiction. Please consider reading newspaper editorials and magazine articles for some insight into how to communicate ideas easily and effectively. You may also want to consider taking a business writing class, or joining an online writing group -- writing groups are great for getting critiques on style.

    Final note: I'm by no means the best writer in the world. I hope you take this post as I've intended it, as helpful advice to make it easier for you to communicate your ideas.
    • by Reziac (43301) * on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:44AM (#28026325) Homepage Journal

      There's a sentence in the prologue of Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER that goes on for a bit over *two pages* in 5 point type. Being at the time a bored 10th grader and this book being required but very dull reading, the only fun to be had was in diagramming that sentence.

      It took a full sheet of paper writ small, and the diagram twisted in new and different ways never before seen by grammarians.

      Some blog comments rival this antique literary nightmare. And a problem thereby arises: sometimes that overstuffed sentence can arrive at grammatical and therefore legal ambiguity which an evil-minded lawyer or prosecutor could twist in novel ways. (Witness the legal arguments derived from comma placement in the 2nd Amendment!)

      So -- learn to write clearly, for your own protection.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Red Flayer (890720)

        So -- learn to write clearly, for your own protection.

        Not just for legal protection, either. It's a waste of time to re-explain things, or deal with misunderstandings. In business, I try to write in short sentences to make it easier on the people reading my memos and emails. I constantly remind myself "staccato" -- it helps :)

        • by Reziac (43301) *

          "Staccato" is a good description of CJ Cherryh's action scenes -- they work in part because you wind up reading the action in realtime, not dragging along word by word.

          As a good general rule, if you have trouble making a sentence work, you are overstuffing it and it needs to be broken up.

          Which principles I do well by when writing fiction, but often ignore when writing comments like this one, where I often delve into layers of parentheticals and other hideous constructions :)

          (A side effect of having a brainf

      • by mangu (126918)

        (Witness the legal arguments derived from comma placement in the 2nd Amendment!)

        I think this last parentheses goes against what you and the GP were trying to say. We should simplify our speech, using small sentences and paragraphs, OK. But the Second Amendment is very short, it's just one sentence less than thirty words in length.

        For me the real argument in the 2nd is the "well regulated" part. There are two types of militia mentioned in the US laws, the organized militia which means, basically, the Nationa

        • by Reziac (43301) *

          If you look at the supporting documents written by the various framers, they weren't speaking of an "organized" anything, but rather the common man's ability to defend himself against future tyranny.

          But as you say... however you write, someone can and will find a way to twist it, should they be so inclined.

          "If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged." -- Cardinal Richelieu

          • by mangu (126918)

            If you look at the supporting documents written by the various framers,

            If you have to look at supporting documents, it means the original document wasn't well phrased to begin with.

            That's the big problem with the 2nd Amendment, it's not a consensus. The problem is not with a particular comma or an interpretation of the word "regulated". The problem is that, differently from the 1st, the right guaranteed by the 2nd is not as clear in people's minds.

            And there is where the interpretation problems begin.

            • by Reziac (43301) *

              And back to the original point: write clearly the first time, so you don't become someone's argument or crime stat. :)

      • by StikyPad (445176)

        the only fun to be had was in diagramming that sentence.

        I know it's a cliche that Slashdotters need to get out more, but I believe in this case it's particularly applicable..

    • Agreed. Additionally, Bennett suffers from injecting too many ideas into a single op-ed. He is well-meaning: those tangential paragraphs are intended to preemptively defend against a potential criticism.

      But those kinds of "yes I thought of this angle; yes I thought of this problem" paragraphs break the flow of the discussion and make it more confusing (not to mention longer). Tangents should be minimized; by shrinking them to a single parenthetical, using footnotes, etc. Often they should be removed entirel

      • That's a really good point about the pre-emptive inclusion of counter-arguments breaking the flow. I think that's probably the biggest problem in his pieces -- moreso that the length of his sentences and paragraphs.

        In most well-written pieces I've read that include those, they are footnotes (as you suggest), or at least at the end of the piece.

        I think it's a common problem with people who use outlines to map out a work. Organizing the piece by topic, and addressing each topic completely before moving o
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by pileated (53605)

      Your writing is just fine. If you read actual legal notes, as I've been doing recently, you realize how convoluted writing really can be. It's sad that most readers can no longer read a sentence with more than one clause in it. That's the reader's problem, not yours. God forbid that writing should sink to the level of the lowest common denominator.

      This is one reason I can't see the internet ever replacing newspapers or magazines. The latter are designed for slower, more thoughtful reading. The former is bet

      • It's sad that most readers can no longer read a sentence with more than one clause in it. That's the reader's problem, not yours.

        I disagree. If your goal is to communicate an idea, failure to communicate that idea due to poor writing is your problem, not the readers'.

        For a tech analog, look at UI design. Is it the fault of the users, or the fault of the designer, when the users have problems using the software due to the UI?

        Of course the best writers still manage to make their complex explanations seem s

        • by pileated (53605)

          You say that there is a limit to what can be parsed easily. But there is no such objective limit. Why do people continue to read such writers as James Joyce and Henry James? Obviously some readers do parse them and enjoy doing so. Of course fiction is not the same as non-fiction.

          Nonetheless not all readers want or enjoy non-fiction writing that sacrifices nuance for simplicity. Sometimes, in fact most times from what I can tell, writing is so pared down, so simple, as to not have much substance to it. Obvio

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by PCM2 (4486)

      In short, Hemingway is a poor model for clear writing, especially when writing non-fiction.

      Eh? Poor choice there, considering Hemingway is renowned for his blunt, economical writing style. The average Hemingway sentence probably contains about 12 words. Hemingway also spent time as a print journalist. You probably mean someone like Hawthorne, as another commenter suggested.

      • Yup, sorry. Made a mistake.

        As I said, I'm not the best writer around :)
        • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

          by Anonymous Coward

          Yup, sorry. Made a mistake.

          As I said, I'm not the best writer around :)

          I'll use little words.
          So that you can read.

          Hawthorne, Hemingway.
          Both start with H.
          Both are long names.
          You got them mixed up.
          I think I know why.
          Both names are TLDR.

    • Not to mention that reading on the Web is usually noticeably harder than reading paper. Therefore, you need to adapt your writing style when moving between them.

      You need short paragraphs, much shorter than on paper. You won't be able to use as many words, so you have to be more economical, and perhaps drop some detail. You should be trying to cut unnecessary words on paper, too, but it's more important on the web.

      The topic sentence for a paragraph is more important. You can't expect readers to read

  • Free not Anonymous (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Kurusuki (1049294) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @11:29AM (#28026093)

    Free Speech is not anonymous speech. Just because you have the right to say whatever you want, with some caveats, doesn't mean you, at any point, are granted the protected right of being anonymous. You are currently at liberty to say what you want anonymously, but as with all liberties, it is not guaranteed by the Constitution.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      We've grown up in a world in which we can say the most inane or offensive things without repercussions, so I understand why you think that freedom of speech is not impaired by limiting anonymous speech. The world is changing and, while we don't yet live in a society in which people die for speaking out against government officials (see Rodrigo Rosenberg case), once people start fearing for their livelihood or their well-being when they speak their mind, then freedom of speech depends on the right and abilit

      • by ImaLamer (260199)

        I work at a newspaper and I frequently read the comments to stories... because they are sickening but fun to read.

        I'm having issues though with some of the comments I read. We regularly have people posting things like "lynch him" or my latest favorite "the Day of the Rope can't come soon enough!" - always people advocating violence (against a racial group). Should these people be protected behind their screen names? When people are calling for violence should the police be allowed to look into it?

        I'm sure i

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      But anonymity is a very strong bit of free speech.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by sploithunter (1399781)

      "as with all liberties, it is not guaranteed by the Constitution"

      All liberties are guaranteed by the Constitution! Many argued that the bill of rights should not be added to the Constitution because they feared that adding a list of rights would be construed to mean those where the only rights protected. They added the ninth and tenth amendments to clarify; however, most conveniently ignore them. History has proven their fears justified.

      Amendment IX

      The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rig

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Free Speech is not anonymous speech. Just because you have the right to say whatever you want, with some caveats, doesn't mean you, at any point, are granted the protected right of being anonymous. You are currently at liberty to say what you want anonymously, but as with all liberties, it is not guaranteed by the Constitution.

      The right to free speech includes the right to anonymous speech. Speech isn't free if it isn't free from malicious retaliation, and the Supreme Court has ruled as much.

    • Sex isn't protected by the Constitution either, so if Obama becomes a Shaker I guess we're in for some hard times.
  • Compelling a person to speak against his will is no different from and equally obscene as prohibiting a person from speaking. You should fight it at every turn. I will grant that a civilized person will come forward, but under today's rules it's not always the best thing. *No good deed goes unpunished...*

  • by scorp1us (235526) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @12:09PM (#28026769) Journal

    The 14th Amendment [wikipedia.org] to the Constitution provides "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". This means to me that we are all equal [wikipedia.org] and that a chosen profession does not grant anyone any additional rights than those not of the profession. (Licenses, like the BAR, MD, etc not withstanding. We're not talking about the ability to practice law or write a prescription, but rather protection of rights)

    Journalists have been getting unequal protection for some time. We need to extend those "rights" to everyone if we are to live in a free society.

    • The question is whether these laws extend only to professional journalists - that is, those people who report for money, or more specifically as their main occupation - or more widely to the act of journalism itself.

      If it is the former, then I agree that the protection of journalists alone is wholly unfair. It would be akin to saying that professional truck drivers have the right to break the speed limit. The latter, on the other hand, seems completely reasonable - it is the protection of free journalism, w

  • by Sloppy (14984) on Wednesday May 20, 2009 @12:24PM (#28026993) Homepage Journal

    I think the distinction is artificial and no policy should legitimize such a distinction. A lot of code running today just happens to index, search, and present their uploaded text differently (and largely for promotional and styling reasons), but other than that, bloggers and commentators are really doing the same thing. They're writing stuff in the hopes that someone reads it.

    Shield laws shouldn't treat 'em differently. Actually, shield laws shouldn't treat any person's speech differently than anyone else's. A free press is damned important, and the one of the best ways to protect it is to remember that it is not a privilege; it's a right. The government isn't doing reporters a favor by shielding their sources; it is doing what it necessary to keep the 1st Amendment functional. If it's necessary to do that for professional reporters, then it's necessary to do that for everyone. Professional bloggers and kooks with too much time on their hands, should be legal equals.

    If you have a law that sees them as different, then you have an injustice. Either the government is screwing some little guy, or the government just did a favor to the "big" guy and now can expect some integrity-compromising payback for it.

    • The difference is between a published item and a source

      Sources are shielded, publishers are not

      I cannot sue a publishers source, because they do not have to reveal who they are, but I can sue the publisher....

      Is a blog post/comment a source, when everyone can read it (and be defamed by it)

  • I wish this had been posted in the evening so I could study it. For now, here's a very brief dissent:

    I feel B. H. is inaccurate, and that this is a threat to liberties. My basic reason is that laws have a terrible tendency to "grow" uses lately, and therefore anything with the words "unmask ____ is not a threat" is too abusable precisely because of the posters complaining about his writing style.

    P.S. Some/Many News rags are creating the absolute worst model to follow. "Let's communicate the wrong interpreta

  • "The Telegraph has an interest in protecting its online blogger's identities while the State has an interest in prosecuting someone who has allegedly murdered a child." That sounded to me like sarcasm on first reading, but actually I think he's just being logically rigorous."

    This is not so logically rigorous. The ruling was whether a subpoena could be used to identify "bloggers" not a search warrant. In the statement above, clearly a search warrant could be sought to gain access to records. Much more lo

  • No comment. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    No comment.
  • Every time I raise a question like this, it provokes the ire of law students and lawyers who say that judges are the real experts on what is legally correct, and it's not appropriate for lay people to comment.

    Law students are just as arrogant as the members of the press! Judges all know best? Remember that when one rules against your argument, f-tard!

  • Journalistic Integrity? Is there such a thing any more?
  • What is the consequence if the law treats any source of information for a reporter as a source? It just means the reporter can't be compelled to answer "Where did you get that information" all the time, including if the answer is, "I got it from a web search."

    Now in most cases a reporter would answer the question, but the law simply gives them the option not to ask. It may be that the commenter on the blog is *also* a secret source who decided to make a public comment. There are other reasons.

    I see no ha

  • This is no different than a being able to subpoena a newspaper's anonymous sources. Yes, there are certain protections, but it's a Judge who ultimately makes the call on whether the source is revealed.

    We could be seeing the rise of journalistic integrity on the internet, not the death of it. Imagine if everyone was ACTUALLY responsible for what they say, and could be sued for libel. What a horrible world we would be living in.
  • I agree that anonymity is essential in order for people to be able to speak freely, but it's foolish to post information that could link you to any particular IRL situation.
  • If it turns out that "Mrs. Sully" is someone who could have been found in this way, then as a taxpayer and as someone who supports law enforcement at least insofar as they're conducting murder investigations, I might reasonably ask why the police didn't do that first.

    This reminds me of two favorite lines by Orac from Blakes 7:

    • "Since I lack sensors to assess what is or is not in your mind, I cannot assess what is or is not already known to you."
    • "I am not trying to tell you anything. I am simply not interested in attempting to compensate for your amazing lack of observation."

    And of course this from Babylon 5:

    • This is Ambassador G'Kar's quarters. This is Ambassador G'Kar's table. This is Ambassador G'Kar's dinner. What part of this progression escapes you?

It is better to give than to lend, and it costs about the same.

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