Free Speech and Identity Verification: Combating the Challenge of Trolling

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All of us at the Huffington Post, keeping in mind our obligation to be of service to the membership, are very serious about the problem of trolling. For the HuffPost community to grow and develop we must emphasize fairness in access, promote civil discourse,  reduce vitriol on our pages, and provide a defense against trolling. A key strategy in doing all of this is our plan to require all new members to identify themselves when they create an account.

I would like to address any concerns you may have bout this plan so that the nature of the change and how it will work become crystal clear.

Over the past eight years the HuffPost community has grown into an energetic public conversation to discuss the news of the day as well our interests, passions and obsessions. And from the beginning we devoted a lot of attention and resources to keeping this conversation civil by investing in the most advanced pre-moderation technology as well 40 comment moderators to supplement it. But it has become clear recently that this has not been enough to deal with ever more aggressive trolls -- jokers, spammers, demagogues, salesmen, bullies and cowards. The very tools that level the playing field and enable open and free conversation have become the tools of the trade for the vicious.

We agree that anonymity is important to democratic discourse. Both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Supreme Court agree on this point. Anonymity allows the writer to freely express ideas that might endanger his or her life or livelihood if they were linked to their true name. Anonymity preserves both privacy and personal security. In those cases Huffington Post will not be revealing true names to the general public. We're talking about keeping pseudonyms (user names) and requiring that community members real identity be known only to the Huffington Post.

The username, created at the dawn of the computer age, is at the heart of our problem with incivility on Huffington Post. The username at its best is a mask that enables us to speak our minds without fear of reprisal but at its worst it is also a mask that creates the perfect opportunity for irresponsible abuse -- if it is not connected to an identity known to those who manage HuffPost community. So we're not getting rid of the username. We're rebooting it for to avoid abuses.

Our best HuffPost users create colorful identities that they wear like vanity license plates on their comments identifying their inner selves with usernames like "forpeace" and "Patriot1942". These users build up a fan base and a solid reputation. If all Internet users had the integrity of "forpeace" and "Patriot1942" we would not have a problem that we need solve on our pages. 

Since people speak differently when they think they can speak without consequence under the cover of unlimited anonymity we are going to ask new members to verify their identify when they sign up. They'll still get to choose a username to customize as they want (within our existing guidelines). This verification process will yield two very important things: Members will know we know who they are and we will have the tools to hold them responsible for their words and actions on our site.

The key to all of this is in the identity verification process. In the era before social networks and so-called "big data" it was very hard to verify a user's identity. IP and email addresses are easily spoofed. Asking for credit card numbers is cumbersome for a free website. But there are other methods which is why HuffPost will start asking new members to verify their identities with a social network that does account verification and follow it up with analytics of metadata.

As many of our current community members have asked questions about how we're going to verify identity we want to make it clear that we are not changing our user agreement, privacy policy, or comment policy, other than requiring that members link their HuffPost accounts with a social media account that verifies identity when they sign up. Those who already have a HuffPost account will not have to do anything. Most of our current membership is known to us. Their activity has established their identity.

But if a current member loses his or her HuffPost account because they have violated our policies they'll have to create a new account with a linked social network to get back in. We believe that insisting on verified identities will increase the value of a HuffPost account and of earning a reputation on our pages.

We want the HuffPost community to return to its original roots: a megaphone for those who can't afford one of their own. We can't allow the good voices to be drowned out by the unprincipled ones.

This blog post was written with the assistance of the Huffington Post's most involved and committed members, mostly Pundits and Super Users. Their help is very appreciated.