Oh, anonymous commenting. It is simultaneously one of the best and worst things about the internet. On the one hand, anonymity helps to facilitate candid, in depth conversation that might not occur otherwise. On the other hand, anonymity is responsible for a wealth of vile, hate-fueled comments that might not otherwise exist if people had to sign their names to their posts.
This past week, a Philadelphia court demanded that Philly.com turn over the real name of an anonymous commenter on its site. More than a year ago, commenter “fbpdplt” described local union leader John Dougherty as a “pedophile”; accordingly, Dougherty filed a lawsuit for defamation.
While Philly.com was not being sued for the comment, it was subpoenaed to hand over information that would help reveal fbpdplt’s true identity. In an attempt to protect the commenter’s First Amendment rights, Philly.com went to court on the as-yet still anonymous commenter’s behalf. However, Judge Jacqueline Allen decided that fbpdplt’s free speech rights did not supersede existing libel laws.
“I think the court is sending a strong message to those who abuse the internet by defaming others and think they can get away with it by acting anonymously,” said Joe Podraza, the attorney for Dougherty.
Following the ruling, a writer at Philly.com stated, “A warning to people who post comments online: Anonymous is not forever.”
Although cases like the one in Philadelphia are hardly commonplace yet, it is a gray area that is becoming the source of a growing number of lawsuits.
In January, the Virginia Court of Appeals said that Yelp must reveal the names of seven anonymous commenters that posted reviews for Hadeed Carpet Cleaning. Hadeed’s owners alleged that the reviews were made falsely to intentionally hurt their business. Since the court could not determine whether the anonymous Yelpers were even actual customers, it wanted to learn the identities to determine whether the lawsuit had any merit.
Similarly, the Spokesman-Review in Washington was sued to divulge the identity of a commenter who made an unflattering accusation about Tina Jacobson, a politician in Idaho. Deciding that its policy to protect anonymous sources should apply to commenters on its website as well, the newspaper fought in court to avoid having to reveal anything. After losing that battle, however, the newspaper never had to follow through on the court order because the commenter, Linda Cook, stepped forward on her own. Although Cook acknowledges she would have probably expressed her comment differently if she had to sign her name to it directly, she still believes that anonymous commenting is worthwhile.
Though these early cases all seem to target specific internet users rather than all anonymous commenters as a whole, there has been movement to eliminate the practice altogether. In 2012, New York legislators proposed a bill that would forbid people from commenting on websites without signing their real names to their posts.
The Supreme Court, once declaring that “anonymity is a shield from tyranny of the majority,” has long backed protections for anonymous writing, though most of the relevant rulings occurred before the digital age. If – and it’s probably really just a matter of when – the highest court does take on an internet commenting case, it’ll be interesting to see whether the internet remains a haven for free speech.