Here we go again — a new attack on anonymous speech, misusing the facts ripped from the current headlines about a case of one person’s slimy online attacks on another. So, as what Maureen Dowd today called the “Case of the Blond Model and the Malicious Blogger” gains publicity steam, Dowd and too many other commentators seem to be missing some key points and drawing the wrong lessons.
To refresh your memory, if you haven’t heard about it, this case involves Liskula Cohen, a model who was on the receiving end of some vile comments next to suggestive pictures, posted under a pseudonym on one of gazillions of such blogs at Google’s Blogger service. Cohen’s lawyer persuaded a judge that the posts were arguably defamatory, and the judge ordered Google to turn over the email address and other logged information it had about the blogger. The company, after first denying Cohen’s request and saying she’d need a court order, then complied and handed over the information. The data trail led back to a Cohen acquaintance named Rosemary Port. Cohen, in a demonstration of her own better instincts, said she would forgive Port instead of suing her.
That’s where this nasty little incident might have ended. Unfortunately it appears to be heading off in new directions.
Port says she’s going to sue Google, arguing that she had a right to confidentiality. Give me a break. I’m a privacy nut, but I believe Google did exactly the right thing in this instance, in part because it obeyed a clear order from a judge who also did the right thing.
No one can dispute that we have a category of human slime that uses online anonymity (or, usually more accurately, pseudonymity) to attack other people. These people, classic cowards, hide behind the virtual bushes to take potshots, and they do so with the ugliest kind of satisfaction.
But as Cohen’s case shows — the postings about her weren’t even close to being the worst material I’ve seen from anonymous sources — online media creators aren’t exempt from defamation laws, though it may take more effort to find out who they are. The judge in New York, Joan A. Madden, looked at the facts and, in my view, correctly decided that Port’s blog postings were sufficiently crude to justify Cohen’s plans to file a defamation lawsuit — not that they were absolutely defamatory, but that they were within the ballpark that could justify letting a jury decide.
Port, for her part, told reporters that almost no one would have known about her sleazy behavior had Cohen not gone to court in the first place and had Google not turned her name over. Talk about twisted logic. Cohen, and most likely some of their mutual acquaintances, knew about it. And the likelihood, given the Internet’s staying power, is that at least some others would have seen Port’s remarks, too. Let’s hope the courts toss any lawsuit from Port into the nearest trash can.
But, as sometimes happens, the larger case is growing, in part due to the large amount of attention it’s received from media of all varieties — newspapers, TV, radio and, of course, blogs. It’s turning into a morality play that could have a real impact on the issue of anonymity. If that impact comes in the form of helping us to establish new norms of behavior, great. If it turns into new laws, watch out.
One of the norms we’d be wise to establish is this: People who don’t stand behind their words deserve, in almost every case, no respect for what they say. In many cases, anonymity is a hiding place that harbors cowardice, not honor. The more we can encourage people to use their real names, the better. But if we try to force this, we’ll create more trouble than we fix.
People who’d ban anonymity don’t seem to realize that it’s technically impossible unless we’re willing to turn over all of our communications in every venue to a central authority — a system that would herald the end of liberty. They can’t really want such a regime, can they? Meanwhile, even that kind of structure could and would be hacked by motivated types, though with more difficulty.
Moreover, anonymity has crucially important value. We need it for whistleblowers, for political dissidents in dictatorships — for those who have important stories to tell but whose lives or livelihoods would be in jeopardy if their identities were exposed.
In other words, to save the heroes who tell us about vital matters, we have to recognize that we’ll also have people who use free speech to ignoble ends. When they cross the line to defamation, they deserve the woes they may bring on themselves.
But we don’t want, in the end, to turn everything over to the lawyers. The rest of us — the audience, if you will — need to establish some new norms as well.
We are far too prone to accepting what we see and hear. We need to readjust our internal BS meters in a media-saturated age.
So start with this principle: When you read or hear an anonymous or pseudonymous attack on someone else, you should not just assume — barring persuasive evidence of the charge — that it’s false. Assume that the accuser is an outright, contemptible liar.
This wouldn’t solve the problem. But it would help.