Thursday, August 26, 2010

Be careful before you post that “anonymous” comment!


Depending on the topic, some internet blogs and websites are almost certain to stir up controversy and elicit strong opinions. A sewing blog might not rile people up but a blog about life in Condo and HOA land absolutely will bring out both sides on any particular issue.

Of course, that is the whole point, isn’t it? Allowing healthy public debate over issues of importance? Absolutely, but it can be all too tempting for some people to cross a line in such debate. Expressing an opinion is fine even if that opinion is that a certain hotel or restaurant has lousy service or food. Disparaging a business operator personally or accusing a public official of criminal conduct are danger zones.

Often, the cloak of anonymity gives a false sense of security. Many people have no idea of the potential liability they face when they publish something online. Last month, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a District of Nevada Order requiring the disclosure of the identity of three people accused of conducting an “internet smear campaign” via anonymous postings against Amway Global. In Canada, courts are also ordering ISP’s to identify individuals who have posted defamatory material online.

It is important to remember that there is never any real expectation of privacy on the Internet; even postings made at public locations such as libraries and internet cafes can be tracked if necessary. Most bloggers and people responding to blogs have no understanding of the distinctions between expressions of opinion and libel. Don’t assume that the cloak of anonymity can’t be stripped by court order. Even if the owners of a website don’t know a poster’s actual identity, ISP addresses, as well as email addresses, are frequently stored and that information is subject to discovery under the proper circumstances. The law governing the prerequisites for compelling the disclosure of a poster’s identity remains unsettled.

So do these recent court cases spell the demise of our constitutional rights to freedom of speech or are they the proper response to “keyboard bullies” who spread misinformation and vitriol on the internet without regard to the consequences?

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