Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On Blogging, Opinion and Anonymity

This morning, I have been reading about an interesting legal case involving a supposedly anonymous blogger in New York whose identity was revealed by the blog's host, Google.

The blogger had "posted rants" about a model at a blog titled "Skanks in NYC." The model, Liskula Cohen, didn't want the blogger's comments to remain on the internet for the rest of her life so she sued to get information about the blogger's identity, and a judge ordered Google to comply.

Google complied, and now the blogger says she will file a $15 million lawsuit against Google for not protecting her identity.

"The judge rejected [her] argument that blogs on the Internet 'serve as a modern–day forum for conveying personal opinions' and should not be regarded as fact," reports Stephen Samaniego for CNN.com.

Samaniego says legal experts believe the blogger is not likely to win the suit.

It reminds me of an online discussion I had with another blogger a few months ago.

This blogger had written about a murder case in which a child went missing and her body was later discovered in a suitcase. The church the child attended — and the home of the church's pastor — were investigated by the police. No one in authority had accused the pastor of anything, but his grandchild was about the same age as the murdered child and it turned out they had been playmates. The victim lived near the church and the pastor's home. That made them locations of interest.

When I was a general assignment reporter, one of my beats was the police beat. Based on my experience, it sounded — to me — as if the police in this case were leaving no stone unturned. I think most of us would agree that is the kind of diligence we would want from the police if someone we loved — particularly a child — met with foul play.

But the blogger made a remark in her report that was along the lines of "It's hard to imagine a pastor being involved in something like this, but ..."

That struck me as being sort of a non–accusation accusation, and I made the comment that, if the police investigation revealed a more likely suspect, the pastor might feel inclined to sue anyone who had implied that he might have been involved.

The blogger got defensive and responded that she had been stating her opinion. "That's what we do here," she said.

I replied that I understood what she was saying, but I also majored in journalism in college and, as a result, I know a little about communications law. I'm not a lawyer, but I know enough about the law to know a civil proceeding and a criminal proceeding are two different things.

In both instances, the burden of proof falls to the one bringing the charges. But the proof need not be as compelling in a civil case as it needs to be in a criminal case.

Remember the O.J. Simpson murder case? In the criminal case, Simpson was acquitted of murder charges because, in the jury's eyes, the prosecution did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. When the families of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman brought Simpson into court for the civil case, the prosecution did not have to meet that standard. It also did not need a unanimous jury verdict. There were a few dissenting votes, but there were enough votes supporting the prosecution that Simpson lost and was ordered to pay millions of dollars to the plaintiffs.

Communications law has been evolving for hundreds of years. It has adapted when new forms of communication have emerged, but the principles have remained constant.

Many bloggers believe — erroneously — that anonymity is guaranteed on the internet and that their statements can be defended as opinion.

Anonymity is not guaranteed. If a blogger writes something that is considered pertinent to a legal investigation, the provider of the blog space is likely to side with authorities, as Google did, and produce whatever information it can. Bloggers who sign up with Google only have to give an e–mail address, but if law enforcement is seeking information, a blog space povider may well do as Google did and turn over that address to the authorities and let them track down the blogger.
"Google does comply with valid legal processes, such as court orders and subpoenas, and these same processes apply to all law–abiding companies. At the same time, we have a legal team whose job is to scrutinize these requests and make sure they meet not only the letter but the spirit of the law."

Google statement

As for bloggers who believe that opinion is a defense, I would remind you that the judge in New York rejected that argument.

Laws vary from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And communications law is still emerging in the virtual world.

But, until these laws have fully emerged, the best advice I can give to bloggers would be:
  • If those conducting an investigation have charged someone with a crime, that is when it is appropriate to begin forming an opinion. Until such a charge has been filed, though, any such "opinions" can be viewed as speculation.

    That could leave you vulnerable to a lawsuit. And even defending yourself in a lawsuit can be very expensive. It can be even more costly if you lose. How costly? It depends on the jury.

  • Just because you have an opinion about someone or something does not mean you must express it.

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