LOS ANGELES--If Jim Brady had his way, there would be no guaranteed anonymity for those who post comments to Washingtonpost.com.
Brady, executive editor of The Washington Post's online division, said during a panel discussion at the Digital Hollywood conference here that he would like to see a technology that could identify people who violate site standards--and if need be--automatically kick them off for good.
Brady has a notable history with this issue and I'll get to that. First, his position must be made clear. In an interview following the panel discussion, Brady said he doesn't want people's personal information for any other reason but to hold them accountable for what they post. He said he's not--as he has been accused by some--an enemy of free speech. He just wants to oversee a site where readers engage in civil discourse and debate without fear of it degenerating into a "back alley environment."
"I think part of the problem is that people aren't held accountable on the Web," Brady said. "People say things online they would never say when disagreeing with someone at the dinner table. I think heated debate is fine, but when there are (flame wars), many people won't take part for fear they will be attacked and bashed over the head with the (Internet-equivalent) of a steel pipe."
Brady knows how intensely many Internet users disagree with him. He made headlines in January 2006 after shutting down the comments area of a blog where outraged readers gathered to rebuke the Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell.
Following the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, Howell erred when she said that the lobbyist gave campaign donations to Democrats as well as Republicans. Abramoff gave only to Republicans. The paper's Web site saw more than 1,000 comments, many from people who accused the Post of conspiring with the Republicans.
Things got worse when Howell posted a clarification. When Brady saw that many of those comments violated the paper's policy against the use of profanity or personal attacks, he blocked users' ability to post. The decision was widely criticized. In defense of his decision, Brady wrote that many of the posts weren't comments at all, but the kind of thing "you might find carved on the door of a public toilet stall."
I reminded Brady that many people feel strongly about their right to privacy online. He responded that he feels strongly about it too, but there are plenty of sites that take an anything-goes approach and that people who want to drop F-bombs and blast each other should go there. "We don't want our site to be sanitized, but we have the right to create a different kind of community," Brady said.
Brady also lamented that closing user accounts doesn't keep bad eggs off a site. They just come back and create new ones. He said that his site can identify someone's IP address, but it's not an elegant solution because blocking them can be tricky. "You don't want to end up blocking the entire Department of Energy or something like that," he said.
Pluck, a company that provides social-networking software, helps maintain some of the Post's blogs and has implemented a "bozo filter," which can isolate comments that include banned words or phrases, according to Brady.
But this isn't a solution. Brady believes that in the next five years people will be required to identify themselves in some way at many sites. "I don't know whether we do it with a credit card number, a driver's license or passport, but I think making people responsible would raise the level of discourse."
Greg Sandoval is a former Washington Post staff writer.