Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Internet Police Are Watching Comments & Forums


The Cool Justice Report
March 11, 2009

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report,

More people are turning to blogs for news and information. And many mainstream journalists are using blogs to put their spin on the news of the day. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, reports that in December 2007 the search engine Technorati was tracking 112 million blogs daily.

Personal "blogspots" are becoming a means of instant communication among family and friends, highlighting baby pictures, wedding announcements, anniversaries and the like. The world of the couch potato has certainly expanded.

Not to be confused with blogs are the internet message boards and forums.

Every news site provides an ability to post comments following stories. Forums exist for nearly every hobby, product, political expression, and on and on. Forums are intended to be informational and allow those with a common interest to share ideas.

Nearly all comments are posted under pseudonyms. Anonymity is so empowering. Most sites warn that profane comments violate the terms of use. Since there is no internet forum "court" I don't know what powers of enforcement there are for violators of the forum's self-imposed code of pleasant commentary. I doubt that there are squads of internet police that will storm the profanity user's home and trash his laptop.

Or are there?

Aside from policing profane comments, there are now civil ramifications for vicious and libelous posts. The idea that I can say whatever I wish on a site because it does not reflect any information that would identify me has emboldened many users to make vicious, defamatory statements. The day of the anonymous internet flamer or troll, as they are called, may be coming to a close.

Beware all you angry posters; the courts are allowing your targets to strike back. Early attempts by targets of vile posts to obtain identifying information about the unnamed flamers were rebuffed by courts, citing the First Amendment's right of free speech. Two recent cases have suggested that some judges believe that there should be some reasonable limits on that freedom.

In 2008 anonymous posters on Craigslist accused champagne producer Korbel of destroying Redwood forests and punishing employees who reported sexual harassment; charges the company denied. Korbel struck back by suing Craigslist.

A judge in Santa Clara, California has ordered internet provider, Comcast to turn over identifying information about the users who have made these defamatory comments. The judge has ruled that the unnamed users will be given notice of his order to release their identities and an ability to mount a legal challenge. None of the anonymous commentators appeared in court to argue against the request. To do so would have outed them.

The website, Topix, maintains forums for various news organizations. Recently a judge in Texas has ordered the online news site to reveal identifying information for 178 commenters who posted remarks about a couple who had been charged with sexual assault crimes. The couple was acquitted but the defamatory posts continued. The couple sued the anonymous posters but not Topix itself. The lawsuit described the comments as, "perverted, sick, vile, inhumane accusations."

Despite using a pseudonym, when you hit that "enter" key it leaves a signature that is traceable to your computer's IP address. So if you want to exercise your right to free speech, do so; but don't say anything you wouldn't sign your name to.

Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. His column also appears in the Sunday Norwich, CT Bulletin. Website,

  • Meehan law firm

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    Santa Clara, Calif. Press Democrat:

    Lawsuits threaten to chill anonymous speech online, said Ann Brick, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

    "If people have to worry about having their identities revealed, they are going to be reluctant to join the discussion," she said. "There is a real potential to stifle free speech on the Internet."

    Korbel worked with Craigslist to remove the comments, but wouldn't say whether the popular online bulletin board revealed the Internet addresses of the posters.

    While Craigslist won't comment on the case, its Web site says it may disclose its users' Internet addresses in court cases.

    Korbel has determined the unnamed posters are customers of Comcast's Internet service, according to court papers.

  • Santa Clara, Calif. Press Democrat
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