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The Crackdown on Anonymous Commenters

The Crackdown on Anonymous Commenters

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.

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148 comments

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2:25PM PDT on Apr 2, 2014

K,

Michael T is exactly correct.

Better web bullying than actual violence in the real world because of your views. Besides, abusive posts can be flagged as abusive.

5:54PM PDT on Apr 1, 2014

Juli some of us have had the experience where we used our real names for our on line personalities, made references over a period of a year or two, that led people to be able to track us down, send hate mail, or hate phone calls, or stalked us in some fashion or another.

It turns out in my experience that my name, phone number and home address were easily tracked by someone via the internet. I had to change my phone number in this instance. Luckily I lived in another state far away from them.

The internet has made a number of things possible that weren’t possible before.

Erich Schmidt once said

“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”

I note that you still protect your name for similar reasons as I have stated above.

11:52AM PDT on Apr 1, 2014

Besides, who here thinks it's OK to *knowingly lie* & call some one a child molester in public but hide behind anonymity ? Or make death/rape threats? That happens too.

11:48AM PDT on Apr 1, 2014

Before you ask, Juli K *is* my real name, well most of it anyway ; )

11:47AM PDT on Apr 1, 2014

My problem with anonymity is that it seems to invite abuse. I fully support free speech but that should not translate as free from all personal responsibility. We have all seen examples of vile hate speech & bullying. And anonymity just seems to protect bullies. At what point should people no longer have to own their words?

4:03AM PDT on Mar 18, 2014

ty

3:42PM PDT on Mar 17, 2014

Love how you put it, Michael T!!!!!!! Continue this way! Oh, of course, what am I thinking? lol You will and I, for one of many, thank you!!!!

10:58AM PDT on Mar 17, 2014

NOTED

10:14AM PDT on Mar 17, 2014

I am glad that there are beginning to be some restrictions to anonymous posting. I've seen some very hateful words and viewpoints expressed.

8:15AM PDT on Mar 17, 2014

I commend Judge Jacqueline Allen for taking the correct position, not certain the John Roberts
SCOTUS would agree, if it came before them.
John C./Houston, Tx.

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