Saturday, August 28, 2010

Online Ranters Increasingly Pay a Price

(Editor's Note: I found this story in the Seattle Times, but I thought it was a good follow on piece to our poll on whether or not online posters on local newspaper sites should have to identify themselves. For awhile now, I’ve wondered why our local daily newspaper allows people to comment on online stories and blog posts using pseudonyms — nicknames and false identities (and I suspect some use more than one) — while absolutely requiring a verifiable name, address and phone number to have a Letter to the Editor published. Is there a difference between these, except for the immediacy of the media, that I’m missing? Many of those posters usually don’t allow actual facts to get in the way of their “informed” opinions, with conversation often quickly degenerating into vitriolic cheap shot insults between posters. In my view, if these gutless wonders had to actually identify themselves, the discourse would quickly be elevated to a much more civil and respectful level.

The Internet has allowed tens of millions of Americans to be published writers, but has also led to a surge in lawsuits

Tribune Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — The Internet has allowed tens of millions of Americans to be published writers. But it also has led to a surge in lawsuits from those who say they were hurt, defamed or threatened by what they read, according to groups that track media lawsuits.

"It was probably inevitable, but we have seen a steady growth in litigation over content on the Internet," said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York.

While bloggers may have a free-speech right to say what they want online, courts have found they are not protected from lawsuits, even if comments are anonymous. Some postings have led to criminal charges.
Hal Turner, a right-wing blogger from New Jersey, faces up to 10 years in prison for posting a comment that three Chicago judges "deserve to be killed" for having rejected a Second Amendment challenge to the city's handgun ban in 2009.

Turner, who also ran a Web-based radio show, believed it "was political trash talk," his lawyer said. But a jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., this month convicted him of threatening the lives of the judges on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In western Pennsylvania, a judge recently ruled a community website must identify the Internet address of individuals who posted comments calling a township official a "jerk" who put money from the taxpayers in "his pocket." The official also owned a used-car dealership, and one commenter called his cars "junk." The official sued for defamation, saying the comments were false and damaged his reputation.

In April, a North Carolina county official won a similar ruling after anonymous bloggers on a local website called him a slumlord.

"Most people have no idea of the liability they face when they publish something online," said Eric Goldman, who teaches Internet law at Santa Clara University in California. "A whole new generation can publish now, but they don't understand the legal dangers they could face. People are shocked to learn they can be sued for posting something that says, 'My dentist stinks.' "

Under federal law, websites generally are not liable for outsiders' comments. However, they can be forced to reveal the poster's identity if the post includes false information presented as fact.

Calling someone a "jerk" and a "buffoon" may be safe from a lawsuit because it states an opinion. Saying he wrongly "pocketed" public money could lead to a defamation claim because it asserts something as a fact., like many news websites, promises to safeguard the privacy of users — including those submitting comments — by not releasing personally identifiable information to third parties. But The Seattle Times makes exceptions when public safety is at stake or when compelled to disclose user identities by law-enforcement authorities.

The Supreme Court has said the First Amendment's protection for freedom of speech includes the right to publish "anonymous" pamphlets. But judges have been saying that online speakers do not always have a right to remain anonymous.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last month upheld a Nevada judge's order requiring disclosure of the identities of three people accused of conducting an "Internet smear campaign via anonymous postings" against Quixtar, successor to the well-known Amway.

"The right to speak, whether anonymously or otherwise, is not unlimited," Judge Margaret McKeown wrote.
Quixtar had sued, contending the postings were damaging to its business. The judge who first ordered the disclosure said the Internet had "great potential for irresponsible, malicious and harmful communication." Moreover, the "speed and power of Internet technology makes it difficult for the truth to 'catch up to the lie,' " he wrote.

Media-law experts say such lawsuits are hard to track because many arise from local disputes and rarely result in large verdicts or lengthy appeals.

Goldman, the Santa Clara professor, describes these cases as the "thin-skinned plaintiff versus the griper." They begin with someone who goes online to complain, perhaps about a restaurant, a contractor, a store, a former boss or a public official. One person's complaint sometimes prompts others to vent with even sharper, harsher complaints.

"There's a false sense of safety on the Internet," said Kimberley Isbell, a lawyer for the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University. "If you think you can be anonymous, you may not exercise the same judgment" before posting a comment, she said.

Not surprisingly, the target of online complaints may believe he or she has no choice but to take legal action.

"These can be life-changing lawsuits," Goldman said. "They can go on for years and cost enormous amounts in legal fees."

He is particularly concerned about teenagers and what they post online. "Teenagers do what you might expect: They say things they shouldn't say. They do stupid things," he said. "We don't have a legal standard for defamation that excuses kids."

Media-law experts repeat the advice that bloggers and e-mailers need to think twice before sending a message. "Before you speak ill of anyone online," Baron said, "you should think hard before pressing the 'send' button."

Seattle Times staff contributed to this report


  1. Anonymous9:57 AM

    It is completely impossible to verify the correct identity of anyone posting online. One would have to stand over them checking their ID while they type up their posts. The discussion is moot, because any non-pseudonym law would be completely unenforceable.

  2. Anonymous3:19 PM

    Lary -- I can't speak to the policies of the local daily newspaper, but I can address the practice in broader terms. Websites that rely on advertising need "eyeballs". It is simply a fact of life that more people visit online news sites for the snarky comments than well-reasoned "letters to the editor."

    Those who play an active role in the "discussion" may total a mere 3% of the readers who are fascinated by the verbal brawl. It has been so since the first email listserv "communities" formed over 20 years ago.

    It was interesting to read the article by Mr. Savage, but while dealing with the legal issues, he didn't explore the reasons people have for anonymous snark. My guess is that people just need to get things off their chests. They don't want to come up as the author of their opinion in at Google search, so they make up a name and let 'er rip.

    In my mind, there's a difference between the newspaper article commentators and the hate-mongering bloggers, but Savage is right. It would only take one lawsuit to change someone's life in an instant, so people should be warned that their "handle" may be anonymous, but they can still be traced by their digital trail (IP addresses, etc.).


  3. Doña Keating4:16 PM

    Exactly, Ken.

    This article is really about comments which cross the line or threaten public safety. They can be uttered by a person with a name, as exemplified by the radio host referenced, or an anonymous blogger who then has his or her information provided to the property authorities to be dealt with.

    The anonymity debate is an old one, with valid points on both sides. But as long as media outlets want "eyeballs" in order to satisfy advertisers and continue to generate revenue, decisions which force participants to publicly divulge personal identities will be at their peril.