Archive for August, 2009

More on the legal limits of anonymity

August 21, 2009

Serves me right for letting myself get behind on my blog reading.

Yesterday, I talked about the need for clearer standards on when a publisher gives up an anonymous poster’s identity.  As it happens, there was progress on this front just a few days ago: Ars Technica posted a good article on almost this subject.  It’s not about blogging in this case, it’s about an apparently-false anonymous whistleblowing claim, but the basic principle is close — someone is claiming to have been defamed by an anonymous claim, and wants to find out who made the claim in order to sue them.

This time, the case apparently made it up to the appeals court, which has taken the contradictory previous decisions and attempted to craft a reasonable compromise.  The article gives the exact wording, but it basically boils down to requiring the plaintiff to demonstrate both that there are reasonable grounds and that they actually need the person to be unmasked.

So yay for intelligent judges, and at least a little progress towards laws and precedents that make sense in the modern age…

The inevitable limits to anonymity

August 20, 2009

I suspect that most folks will have heard about this, but I’ll refer my readers to this good article in SFGate about the “Skanks in NYC” case.  (Thanks to Aaron for the link.)

The short version: we’ve finally gotten a court case that came out with a ruling I’ve been expecting for a while, saying that there are limits to what you can get away with in blogging.  For a long time, there’s been a tacit assumption among many bloggers that they can say anything, and would be legally invulnerable — they saw that the system treated them as anonymous, and kind of figured that that meant they were untouchable.  This case ruled otherwise: it says that this particular blog crossed the line into defamation (at least, enough so to get a subpoena).  Moreover (and much more seriously), it ruled that Google has to turn over what records it has about the “anonymous” blogger.

Like I said, I’ve been expecting this.  The lines between blogging and publishing have long been blurry, and some blogs are obviously treading in libel territory.  I don’t see any real reason why the court would consider an op-ed column potentially libelous, while ignoring blogs like this.

Is it a good thing or bad?  Hard to say.  Anonymity does have its place, and is occasionally deathly critical; OTOH, 99% of uses of it (at least in the US) are simply venal.  IMO, this is an area where the law really needs to grapple with the problem seriously.  In particular, we need crystal-clear rules for when a “publisher” (such as Google in this case) can be coerced into turning over an anonymous poster’s information.  In this particular case I happen to think that it’s reasonable, but it’s the top of a slippery slope to more questionable requests.

In the meantime, keep in mind that your anonymity is not legally protected, at least not to an absolute degree.  So if it really matters, make sure that your tracks are well enough covered that the publisher’s contact information isn’t enough to track you down.

Opinions?  How do you feel about the legal lines here?  Is the demand to Google reasonable in this instance?  Where would you draw the line?