Speak Up For Anonymity

Our View: As Pseudonyms Clash With Defamation Laws In Increasingly Uncivil Online Discourse, The Courts Must Carefully Balance Privacy Rights And Defense Against Libel

August 31, 2009

The Internet is not an especially civil place. A guy in Asia can spend his evening trashing a Canadian woman's home movies; students can spread malicious rumors about classmates for the world to see; and "editors" can add all manner of falsehoods to Mohandas Gandhi's Wikipedia page, just for kicks. In most cases, these ne'er-do-wells write vitriolic comments and blog posts anonymously, there are a few fighting words and the dustup dies down with minimal damage.

Other times, men and women are emotionally, mentally, physically or monetarily hurt because of words published online, with little recourse - unless they can find out who their cyberbullies are.

A lot has been said recently about Vogue model Liskula Cohen and her suit to discover the identity of a blogger who called her a "skank." After a judge determined that Ms. Cohen had a legitimate claim of defamation, Google gave the blogger's information to the court, and Rosemary Port, an acquaintance of the model's, was outed. Meanwhile, Ms. Cohen has dropped her defamation case, forgiving Ms. Port and making this story feel more appropriate for the gossip column.

Many are hollering about this case and its implications for free speech and privacy on the Internet. The fact that Ms. Cohen has now reached out to the mother of Megan Meier, the teen who killed herself after a classmate's mother cyberbullied her - under the guise of the fictional teen boy "Josh" - highlights the simultaneously tragic and ridiculous nature of cyberbullying. Mrs. Meier lost a daughter, while Ms. Cohen has gained a newfound career in activism, plus some name recognition.

However, Ms. Port's case highlights the many legitimate and lesser-known issues where a person's right to anonymous speech - treasured since the days of Publius and Silence Dogood - clashes with healthy, democratic discourse and U.S. libel law.

In the landmark 1995 ruling in "McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission," the Supreme Court recognized that "protections for anonymous speech are vital for democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views. ... Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority." While few care about New York fashionista infighting, everyone should be concerned about Google handing over its customers' private information. Many anonymous bloggers hide their true identities as protection against vengeful employers, governments, exes or stalkers.

Today, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that defends citizens' rights on the Internet, is fighting the Bush administration-era warrantless wiretapping, seeking the release of FBI surveillance rules, and investigating the Google Book Search settlement, which threatens to strip away the privacy and anonymity of readers everywhere. These are the cases that Ms. Cohen's lawsuit should bring to the forefront. They illustrate how precious our privacy is, and why we should fight for it, while also underlining that we must keep in mind what's good for the people and the safety of all.

Our whistle-blowers, victims of domestic abuse and community activists need to be protected with anonymity, just as our bullied minors and libeled business owners need to be able to defend themselves from malicious liars. These are serious issues that deserve a deeper conversation than the cheap jokes inspired by this Page Six scandal.

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