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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Court Ruling Might Tighten the Reins On the Wild, Wild Web

A catfight between two women with ties to the fashion industry has evolved into a New York court case with possibly far-reaching implications for the way people interact on the Web.

The case might give pause to those who find it sporting to hurl insults and threats at others under the cloak of Web anonymity.

Here at Legal Schnauzer, we have been the recipient of numerous anonymous threats, and we know they can harm more than your reputation. They can help ruin your career, and we have been paying close attention to the case in New York.

The story in New York apparently started when model Liksula Cohen made a derogatory comment about fashion student Rosemary Port to Port's boyfriend. Port, who is from Florida, responded by starting an anonymous Google-based Web site called Skanks in New York, referring to Cohen as an "old hag" and a "ho."

Cohen sued Google to force the company to hand over identifying information about her cyber tormentor--and she won. Reported The New York Daily News:

A Manhattan Supreme Court judge forced Google to unmask Port, rejecting Port's claim that blogs "serve as a modern-day forum for conveying personal opinions, including invective and ranting" and shouldn't be regarded as fact.

Port has responded by filing a lawsuit against Google. Reports the Daily News:

"When I was being defended by attorneys for Google, I thought my right to privacy was being protected," Port said.

"But that right fell through the cracks. Without any warning, I was put on a silver platter for the press to attack me. I would think that a multi-billion dollar conglomerate would protect the rights of all its users."

Port's lawsuit should not get very far. The right to privacy never has been held to include the right to anonymously trash other people's reputations--and courts are unlikely to toss defamation law out the window now.

Like most bullies, Port seems to be nothing but a crybaby when she is unmasked. Notice that she is unhappy when the press "attacks" her. But her real attacks on Cohen's reputation? Those are perfectly fine.

Why does the "skank" case resonate here in SchnauzerWorld? Well, we know what it's like to be on the receiving end of cyber bullies. Our experience has centered mostly on anonymous threats--at least two of which apparently came from someone who was involved in costing me my job at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

After a February 2008 post about connections between U.S. Attorney Alice Martin and Alabama GOP political consultant Dax Swatek, we received an anonymous comment: "Nut case, yours is comong (sic)."

After an April 2008 post, we received an anonymous comment claiming that I was blogging at work, and my employer, UAB, needed to be notified. On the date in question, I was taking a vacation day, so I was not blogging at work--then or any other time.

But roughly a month later, I was fired at UAB, after 19 years on the job, amid vague allegations that I was blogging at work. (By the way, UAB's own IT expert testified at my grievance hearing that those allegations were not true.)

Am I interested in the source of those anonymous threats? Oh, yes. Am I intrigued that a judge forced Google to turn over identifying information in the New York case? Yes, indeed.

What does the "skank" case mean for the Web in general? You can read a Web-oriented analysis of the case here. An excellent legal analysis is available here at reputationdefenderblog.com.

As a trial-court decision in New York, the "skank" case has no precedent value on other courts. But it's importance could go beyond legal technicalities:

The Cohen case still sets a precedent in the court of public opinion. This is a celebrity case that is being followed by a lot of people who otherwise would not be interested in the technicalities of Internet law. It is sending a clear message to would-be spiteful bloggers who are quickly learning that their cloak of anonymity may not be as thick as they once though it was. It is one more step along the road from Internet-as-Wild-West to Internet-as-suburb.

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