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Dealing With Gray-area Comment Spam

Comment spam is still a problem on many blogs, including this one. Fortunately, WordPress’s Akismet plugin does a great job at filtering out most of the worst offenders.

But there are still some “gray-area” spam comments that I’ve tried to deal with. For me, this less-obvious type of spam has the following three characteristics:

  • The comment itself is specific to the material, and might even be helpful to the discussion
  • The commenter has used keywords instead of a name in the “name” field
  • The name links to a website, usually something to do with the keywords

Generally speaking, if a comment gets through my filters and has nothing of value to add to the discussion, and the commenter uses keywords in the “name” field, I will delete the comment.

But, as indicated above, some comments are actually legitimate comments. Unfortunately, the commenter has chosen to include keywords anyhow (and this is forgetting the fact that pretty much all blogs use “nofollow”, thus negating any benefit those keywords might otherwise get).

My Solution

How should such comments be dealt with? I deal with them by providing the following instructions in the “comment rules” on every comments section on this site:

Please use a real name or alias. Keywords are not allowed in the “name” field. If you use keywords, your comment will be deleted, or your name will be replaced with the alias from your email address.

Generally, I prefer real names in the comments, but not necessarily last names. And I will also accept a business name or alias. But if I feel the comment is still on topic and/or adds something to the discussion, I will allow it to remain, but I’ll replace their “name” with the beginning part of their email address. If their email alias is also just keywords, then I’ll just delete the comment. In a few rare cases, where the comment was quite good and the email address was just keywords, I’ve changed the name to “anonymous”.

Is This Ethical?

So my question about this is a matter of ethics. Maybe it’s even a legal issue, I really don’t know. Do I have the right to alter a person’s contributed content in this way, even if I’m not touching the actual comment content? Sure, I have a right to delete it. But do I have a right to alter what they claim their name is?

On Bruce Lawson’s blog, in the footer, he says: “Comments are copyright their authors…” Is this really the case? Does this mean that every blog should indicate such in this way? So if I’ve altered something in someone’s comment, does that comment no longer qualify as being ‘copyright the comment owner’?

This is an interesting situation that I would be curious to hear some opinions on.

10 Responses

  1. I aggree with the part that a comment should be published in the form it has been sent. On my site (boxed.hu) I either allow it, or disallow it. There is no such thing that altering something.
    Altering is a bad idea because you might display the name of the person whithout him wanting that.

  2. I think that while comments are copyright by the author, the website owner can attach conditions to posting. Such as, “use a real name or alias”. One such condition should also be something like (wording for whenever I get around to having comments on my site):

    By posting you grant me a non-exclusive, revocable (with conditions), non-sub-licensable license to share your comment over the Internet and to edit your comment for any reason, and to share this edited comment over the Internet.

    (The conditions mainly relate to identification and payment.) I’m not a lawyer, but I think that says that if you comment, I can do what I want with the comment on the Internet, but I do not get the right to transfer that right. Basically I’m trying for least evil, while still staying within the normal bounds of how blogs and similar operate.

    Now, in your case, I would say that the comment is distinct from the metadata of the name and website. So, even if you don’t want to edit comments, I would suggest you can still edit the metadata if it doesn’t match the rules you ask. So, change the name to anonymous and remove the website. I would argue this is 100% ethical. You have a simple rule you ask people to follow (use a real name or alias — keywords), and if they don’t follow that rule…

    Now, if you do end up editing the comment, I would still argue that “copyright belongs to the commentator”. However, you’ve made a derived work. If you make it clear that you may do this, I doubt that any judge would rule against you. (The only grey area comes when the material posted is not copyright by the commentator, and they do not have permission to distribute it. But I doubt that’s really an issue.)

  3. Scott:

    On the blog I started (but never update) I removed the website field because I didn’t want people commenting just to pimp their site. I have seen the keyword-stuffing on other sites before now, and I’m baffled why they bother when blogs use nofollow. I understand having the links, as they’re hoping others will click – but very few are going to click a clearly-spammy name.

    I don’t think there is any legal grey area with editing comments. Assuming you have a notice saying so (maybe even without it), you are well within your rights to edit anything that you publish on your site. And the copyright belongs to whoever you state in your notice. (Whether people like that or not is a different matter.) I assume most people say comments are copyright their authors is to avoid any possible legal issues with inflammatory comments.

  4. My feeling is that if a commenter is heavy-handed in the manner in which they present their details, then it’s well within reason to be equally heavy-handed in your editing as the presenter of that comment, as long as some form of attribution is published. Of course a disclaimer is necessary, but as I understand it you may only be beholden to the laws of the country to which the blog is attributed. This is another grey area as that attribution is hard to assert – is the blog’s nationality assigned by domain suffix (.com.au), the country in which it is hosted, or the administrator’s homeland. I’m no lawyer, and I may be completely wrong, it’s just how it was explained to me. Personally, I prefer to delete rather than edit, except in the case of expletives which are usually just replaced by hyphens.

  5. Akismet is the solution, i get on all my blogs lots of comments too and i’m thinking to implement Facebook Comments instead!

  6. At ReadWriteWeb, I remove comments from folks that use keywords as their name too. I think we handle things about the same way :)

    Personally, I think the comments belong to the author of the comment. We do sometimes highlight them in a story, but we are careful to attribute them.

  7. Yes, it’s a perfectly reasonable rule vi@gra c!@alis mortgage lending. Completely reasonable.

  8. Andrew:

    At least on WordPress you can use Comment SPAM Wiper. It offers all the SPAM protection you need (comment, trackback, pingback, etc.).

  9. Andy:

    I’ve put a policy on my blog that any comments will be edited as I feel fit.

    The site owner retains the full right to moderate, adjust, delete from, add to, or otherwise edit any comment at his sole discretion and to remove any comment from this site without notification.

    I do like the idea of making this more specific as you and Michael have done. To be honest I’ve only once or twice had to do an edit to remove a spammy addition to an otherwise sensible comment.

  10. Kevin Right:

    Comment SPAM Wiper is best for protecting your feed – backs.

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