Lifting the Veil of Anonymity: Accountability in the Digital Age – by “Andrew C”

Skanks in NYC

In February of 1996, John Perry Barlow issued a rather flowery piece of prose that he called “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”  In this Declaration, Perry envisioned an Internet governed by “ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal” over which the governments of the world would have neither “moral right to rule”, nor “any methods of enforcement.”

Today, Perry’s piece is seriously somewhat dated.  If there’s one thing the last 13 years have shown it’s that, while the internet does in fact have plenty of world-changing applications, it is far from a utopian virtual dimension.  Any independent observer of the internet today would be undoubtedly amused by the notion that, if left to their own devices, internet users will be motivated by some higher sense of ethics.  Rather, it has become increasingly obvious that no amount of idealistic philosophy will change the baser instincts among the less socially inclined among us.  Actually, it would seem that the relative anonymity of the internet has served to increase the willingness of certain people to post hateful, horrible things.

Ironically, that trend plays perfectly into Barlow’s claim that the US government has no right and no enforcement mechanisms with which to control that which happens on the internet.  Quite frankly, yes it does, and yes it can.  The jurisdiction of the US judicial system undoubtedly extends to comments made in cyberspace, and in recent years, users posting anonymously on blogs and forums have come to realize more and more that, while the Communications Decency Act protects providers of online internet service from defamation lawsuits, it does not protect the actual posters of defamatory comments.  As such, people who thought they were posting anonymously on the internet have increasingly found that they can in fact be held responsible for their actions.073008cohen24JD

One of the best examples of this phenomenon is in the case of Liskula Cohen (pictured right), who in January of 2009 sued Google in order to uncover the identity of the owner of the blog “Skanks in NYC,” which was operated by Google.  Cohen, who is a fashion model, had discovered that the anonymous writer of the blog had posted numerous defamatory comments, calling Cohen a “skank,” an “old hag,” and a “a psychotic, lying whore.”  On August 17, 2009, Judge Joan A. Madden of the Supreme Court of the State of New York issued an opinion ordering Google to reveal the name of the blogger.

The court, in a fabulous argument involving the American Heritage Dictionary definition of the words “skank” and “ho,” stated that the descriptions by the blogger of Cohen as a “skank” and a “ho” constituted an assertion that Cohen was sexually promiscuous.  The court ruled that therefore these statements were not opinions but a statement of provable facts.  As such, the court reasoned, if the facts posted by the blogger could be proven to be incorrect, they could most certainly be construed as defamatory to Cohen’s character.  The court essentially ruled that Cohen had enough of a defamation case against the anonymous blogger that it was necessary and proper to compel Google to reveal the blogger’s name.  As such, Cohen is now suing the blogger, who turned out to be 29 year old fashion student Rosemary Port for $3 million.  Not surprisingly, the two had encountered each other before in the fashion scene, and had reportedly had an altercation involving Port’s ex-boyfriend.

In her ruling, Madden rejected the idea that blogs “serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting,” and cited the opinion of a Virginia Court, which stated that “in that the Internet provides a virtually unlimited, inexpensive, and almost immediate means of communication with tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people, the dangers of its misuse cannot be ignored” and that “the protection of the right to communicate anonymously must be balanced against the need to assure that those persons who choose to abuse the opportunities presented by this medium can be made to answer for such transgressions.”  In this argument Madden acknowledged the vast potential of the internet but at the same time asserted that it cannot serve as a lawless abyss of anonymity.  Madden’s argument was that blogs cannot be considered exempt from defamatory lawsuits and that individuals must be held accountable for their actions online.  At the same time though, Madden argued that it is necessary to strike a balance between accountability and the protection of anonymous free speech.

And indeed, this issue is certainly a question of balance.  For her part, Rosemary Port is suing Google for $15 million for revealing her name, claiming that she is being persecuted for her opinions and that Google violated her privacy by revealing her identity.  In the suit Port’s attorney claims that her Constitutional right to anonymous free speech under the first amendment was violated.  In his argument, Port’s attorney compares Port’s anonymous “Skanks in NYC” blog to the Federalist Papers, which were written under pseudonyms, and upon which the very foundation of our society was based. This connection is dubious.

In the end, this issue is a question of where one draws the line.  Is it necessary for global democracy and free speech that Rosemary Port be allowed to call Liskula Cohen a whoring skank without any consequences? I think most people would say probably not.  It’s hard to argue that protecting people like Port from defamation lawsuits was what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.  It is clear that internet users like Port certainly are not motivated by Barlow’s notion of “ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal.”  Without a doubt, there are individuals who use the screen of online anonymity to say hateful, disgusting things that can be incredibly harmful.  The Skanks in NYC case does appear to demonstrate however that anonymous posters online are becoming decidedly less anonymous as time goes on.  It is possible that, in the end, the posters of morally reprehensible content online will be just as immediately identifiable and accountable as those who perform morally reprehensible actions in the real world.  However, there is a certain truth to the fact that the internet has provided a vital platform for anonymous free speech and the dissemination of information.  Without a doubt, the internet has provided a way for those who are oppressed or censored to both receive information and to spread the news of their plight. The tradeoff between anonymity and accountability, while necessary to a certain degree, definitely lies on a very slippery slope.  It remains to be seen how far down that slope we as a society are willing to go.

Anonymous Speech: Harmful Enough for Regulation? – by “Marcus M”

The Internet offers users the possibility of anonymity, which allows people to act elusively and namelessly across its vast series of tubes. While online, individuals can use aliases to mask their identities or even to design entire virtual “second lives.” While users do leave their IPs behind, they trust that host sites will safeguard this information, which can be used to reveal their true identities. The power afforded by the Internet’s identity-obscuration has a variety of effects on speech.

One of these effects has been to encourage the expression of otherwise detestable speech. Of the belief that their identities will not be uncovered, individuals may feel enabled by their online anonymity to post material they deem too offensive, provocative, or legally dubious to express in the real world. This effect has manifested itself in countless instances of online hate speech and cyberbullying, both of which can cause tangible harm to their targets. This potential for real harm raises the following question: Can the veil of anonymity enjoyed by Internet users be justifiably removed for the sake of a citizen’s protection?

This is the question posed to the Cook County Circuit Court in a recent case regarding “deeply disturbing” comments made online about the 15-year-old son of Buffalo Grove, IL Village Trustee Lisa Stone. Under the alias “Hipcheck 16,” an individual posted the comments in response to an article written in the Daily Herald on April 6, the day before Village Board elections. Stone went to court to ask Judge Jeffrey Lawrence to give her the identity of Hipcheck 16. The judge did acquire the user’s identity, but he did not relay it to Stone, at least not yet. On November 9, Stone’s attorneys and the anonymous poster’s attorney will present their arguments before the judge, who will then decide whether or not to provide Stone with Hipcheck16’s identity.

ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka weighed in on the case, saying that anonymous speech is an integral part of our society, and must be protected. Noting the anonymously published texts by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, Yohnka pointed out the importance of anonymous speech in the early stages of America’s independence. The case would have broad application to online speech rights, since few cases like it have appeared in American courts, and could possibly restrict the ability of citizens to speak anonymously.

But it seems that this point ignores the capacity of the law to draw a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable anonymous speech. The type of speech Yohnka wishes to protect would be legally protected – however nasty, political speech by definition targets the state and its occupants, not fellow private citizens. There do already exist protections for anonymous speech, but these do not cover defamatory and other speech considered illegal in normal circumstances.

The various contributing lawyers seem to neglect Stone’s main concern in seeking Hipcheck16’s true identity. She sees the case as primarily about the “need to protect children from being attacked on the Internet.” This bring to mind the incident last year of a mother posing as a teenage boy on MySpace, who taunted a 14-year-old girl to the extent that she committed suicide.

While certainly an extreme example, this incident demonstrates to me the necessity of at least some laws governing how individuals interact with one another on the Internet. When there is significant, tangible harm done unto a person by another user, I think there should be punitive action taken against that user, beginning, of course, with his identification. The policy behind this would have to be written sufficiently clear as to not deter anonymous speakers in general. Otherwise, the anonymous political speakers whom the ACLU seeks to protect will suffer. What a surprise: a big obstacle is determining the appropriate language for a law.