Governments make residents give up privacy when using third party online comment solutions

I recently submitted an entry to the Knight Foundation News Challenge that’s looking for ideas to “strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.” My submission* calls for creating standards, practices and processes for online public comment for attribution and validation.

Developing online standards to replicate or comply with historical and legislated public comment processes is important for continuing transparency and accountability in the government and among citizens. Informal (anonymous) and formal (attributed) models, or forums, for citizens and government to collaborate can and should co-exist online. Both are required to ensure freedom of expression and informed decision making.

Government faces political, legal and technical challenges to conduct online public commenting. But these challenges are not insurmountable and just as critical as any other challenge they face to support democratic processes at all levels.

Citizens’ preference and expectation for communicating and sharing information has dramatically changed with the Internet. There are new opportunities for government and residents to seize the potential to increase and enhance engagement and collaboration. One idea is a new model to enable and sustain an online public comment process that would be particularly useful for local and state governments. This would involve partnerships among credible, objective groups that would have a role in the collection, organization, moderation and reporting of online public comments.

However, due to some recent experiences, I’ve been rethinking this model in terms of its structure and giving careful consideration to the entities that participate. Specifically, I’m reconsidering the third party comment solutions being used by some public agencies and organizations to enable online comments (as opposed to offering internal solutions). These private solution providers include Facebook, Twitter, Disqus and Quora (there are others). While they attempt to provide a validation and attribution component for online public comments, it comes with a “price” people have to pay to use them.

Using these third party solutions, government and other public organizations are requiring citizens to give more than a name or address that’s typically required at a traditional public meeting or proceeding, and reveal some of their online privacy in order to post an online public comment. There is a problem when someone wants to leave a public comment on their government’s web site and they are required to agree to terms and conditions of a private company that allows them to gain access to their “friends,” posts and other online activities.

Of course, these solutions providers are collecting data about you and your connections. Its content they use to turn a profit. What if you decline? You lose your option to leave an online comment and you’re denied access to your government at least via online methods, which may your (and your government’s) preferred method to participate in the comment collection process.

Online public comment should require validation and attribution (name and address) and be complimented with optional forums for posting anonymous comments. Nothing more should be required unless you want to allow it. Government, public organizations and nonprofits should give serious consideration for enabling constituents to provide formal online input without having to give up their privacy to do so.

* Please review my entry. Post a comment or ask a question to strengthen it. Click/Give it “applause” if you think it has merit.

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