Sunday, July 26, 2015

The cloak of anonymity should not protect those who abuse it online

Should anonymous posts be permitted on websites and, if they are, should the posters' anonymity be protected at all costs?

The limit to how much anonymity should be protected seems to have been answered in part in June, when the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a lower court's ruling that an Internet service provider must reveal the name of an anonymous commenter on a website who made defamatory comments about a politician back in 2011. (The wheels of justice are not as swift as making an online post.)

As Bill Freivogel, a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, told Chris Dettro, a staff writer at The State Journal-Register, "defamation is not protected by the First Amendment" of the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling revisits an issue that has long plagued websites: Should anonymous comments and posts be permitted?

The website reddit has been facing its ownissues over what, if anything, to do about anonymous posters who contribute violent, racist, sexist, or otherwise offensive threads of discussion to its site. On a site that built and prided itself on being open to the comments of users, many of those took issue with a recently departed CEO who tried to crack down on some of the more egregious user posts.

There are times when people posting opinions to a website might fear that adding their voices to a discussion could have personal or professional repercussions, so the cloak of anonymity presents a way for them to contribute without risking retaliation from those who might take issue with what they say.

Too often, however, posters use that anonymous status to post uncivil comments, expressing views they might not broadcast if they had to put their names to the words.

Years ago in a column, I quoted Stephen L. Carter, the author of Integrity (Basic Books, 1996) and a Yale Law School professor: "'If the fear of retaliation causes us not to stand up for our principles, then what kind of principles are they?"

Carter's question remains a strong one to ask today. If some Internet users strongly believe in a particular issue or have a strong response to someone else's opinions, the right thing to do is to have the conviction to attach their names to their views.

On the blog I maintain for this column, anonymous comments are permitted. Most users, however, choose to include their names with their posts, whether those posts agree or disagree with a point I or others have made. While a spam filter catches a good deal of ads for curious products, I haven't had to set up the comments section to require all users to verify their identities before being allowed to post.

My decision has to do with the civility and responsibility the contributors exhibit in making their posts. Like many others who run sites that allow comments, I'd like to keep the ability for readers to make comments as simple as possible. I thank my readers for making such a decision easy to make.

There's nothing ethical about using anonymity as a bludgeon to make posts that are vicious or cruel. When users choose to go such a route, they deserve to be called out. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Expressing sympathy or thanks are not business obligations

Several months ago, I wrote about P.W., a reader from the Midwest who wondered if customer service representatives had an ethical obligation to thank buyers for pointing out errors in shipments. After receiving a package rather than the intended recipient who lived two states away, P.W. had alerted the company. She was sent a shipping label so she could forward on the package on, but no thank you note.

P.W. also wondered if customer service reps were ethically obligated to express sympathy for customers when it was clear buyers were dealing with the loss of a loved one. After her stepmother died last year, P.W. called 12 magazine publishers to cancel her stepmother's subscriptions. Of the 12 reps she told about the death, only three expressed sympathy.

While it would have been thoughtful, kind and ultimately good business to thank P.W. or express sympathy, the customer service reps were under no obligation to do so. Their obligation was to provide a competent and honest response to P.W.'s requests, and each did so.

Now, M.M., a reader from St. Catherines, Ontario, wants to know if courtesy expectations are a two-way street.

After exchanging email with a customer service rep from a major retailer , M.M. got the information he needed to complete his transaction.

"I sent a simple 'thank you' (note) as a follow-up," M.M. writes. Shortly after, he received an email response from the rep indicating how much she appreciated M.M.'s thank you. "She wrote that she responds to hundreds of customers each day and only rarely gets thanked," writes M.M. "It seems to me customers should recognize that courtesy goes both ways. Are customers obligated to be courteous, or is the fact that they're paying for the service thanks enough?"

Kindness and thoughtfulness are virtues and certainly ones I'd encourage in both parties to a business transaction. If a customer service rep is particularly helpful, then expressing thanks for that help is a good thing.

But customers are not ethically obligated to send thank you notes, any more than customer service reps are obligated to express thanks or show compassion to customers. A customer, such as M.M., is obligated to be honest in his dealings with a company. And customer service reps are obligated to work with customers like P.W. and M.M. to respond to their needs.

The right thing for both parties to do in such transactions is to be honest, respectful and responsive. These are the most basic measures of what makes for an ethical business deal.

The handful of customer service reps who expressed sympathy for P.W.'s loss reflects well on them and their company. The same goes for M.M., who took the time to thank a helpful rep. None of them were ethically obligated to show such kindness. Perhaps each of our business dealings would be a bit more positive if we followed their lead. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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Sunday, July 12, 2015

Wild swings in the price of gas leave reader fuming

R.M., a reader from California, takes issue with "the capricious nature of gasoline pricing."

He explains that the time it takes crude oil to travel to refineries, be processed into multiple products (including gasoline), and finally sold to the gas stations that serve consumers can be "up to several weeks." Yet, whenever crude oil prices increase, the price at the pump is immediately boosted, he notes, even though that gasoline was processed from crude oil sold to the gas station at a lower price.

What's more, R.M. points out, if the price of crude oil dips, consumers typically don't see any immediate drop in gas prices.

"There's usually a much longer lag to reduce the at-the-pump price when crude prices drop," her writes. "As a consumer of gasoline for the past 40 years, this pattern is fairly accurate."

R.M. knows that prices at the pump are set to make a profit. It's the gasoline suppliers (refineries, oil companies, distributors) that dictate the going rate at the pump, sometimes even forcing station owners to sell regular gas at a slight loss to raise the volume of customers, "with the hope of making up for that loss with the profit from higher-priced premium gas and any other sales revenue available at the station."

Although R.M. acknowledges that oil companies and gas stations have the right to charge whatever they can get for their goods, he wonders whether it's right to raise and lower gas prices at the pump price so inconsistently.

As a fellow consumer of gasoline, I share R.M.'s frustration. In some cases, the wild differences in prices from state to state make some sense given varying tax rates on gas. But the frequent price swings don't make sense to the average consumer. Neither does the variance in price from station to station.

Does that make the price swings unethical? Not necessarily.

Unless suppliers are engaging in illegal price fixing, setting their prices based on what's legal and what the market will bear seems fair, Suppliers should not gouge gas station owners, however, and station owners should not gouge consumers.

Fortunately for consumers, websites and apps such as are now available that report the lowest gas prices in a given area. (A quick check just revealed that there's a 14 cent per gallon difference among stations within two miles of my home.)

The right thing for gasoline station owners to do is charge a fair price for their goods so they can run a profitable business. The right thing for consumers to do is shop around for the best gas prices they can find. If enough consumers gravitate to stations offering the best prices, the market may send a strong signal to neighboring stations that they should reconsider their pricing. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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