Free Speech vs. Anonymity

The internet is abuzz with the story of Rosemary Port, the blogger behind the “Skanks of NYC” blog. Google was sued by one of the targets of her vitriol (a model named Liskula Cohen) and was forced by courts reveal her real life identity.

Port, a 29-year-old student at FIT, is unapologetic. In fact, you could argue that she’s even more outraged than Cohen, who initially brought the defamation suit against her, considering that Port is now suing Google for $15 million dollars. Nevermind the fact that Google was only abiding by a court’s ruling…

I promise I'll never hide my identity if I run a blog that calls you a skank

What bothers me most about this story is what bothers me a lot about blogs and internet commentary. People like to hide behind the First Amendment and believe they should be allowed to spout hateful, libelous comments without the consequence of actually having to own up to their comments.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

But there’s nothing in the First Amendment that guarantees anonymity in your free speech. See, that’s the difference and where the internet can be a dangerous place. People can hide behind aliases and while many would argue that anonymity allows for a more free exchange of ideas (as has been upheld by a 1995 Supreme Court ruling), the truth is that it has very little to do with the First Amendment.

There are organizations that will try to tell you that you are entitled to your anonymity. There has even been precedent set by previous rulings, but frankly, the court’s ruling that Google must release Port’s identity is going to set a whole new standard.

I’ve long thought that the anonymity afforded bloggers and commenters on the Web allowed people to expose their hatred and racism (just a quick reading of the comments — comments that I would reject — on Tony’s Kansas City will show you that). But those things are actually truths that people just normally don’t share in real life. More dangerous is the flat out fallacies and untruths that people write, hiding behind their veiled “online persona.” I know there are people that do it for the protection of their job or their family or whatever, but I guess that’s just not the kind of blogger I want to be.

I’ve always tried to be myself online. I would hope that my readers will always hold me to that, especially the ones that know me in real life.

What do you think? Is anonymity a part of what the Web is about or does it afford authors and commenters too much leeway?

19 thoughts on “Free Speech vs. Anonymity

  1. The Federalist Papers were anonymously written. That’s enough for me. However, at the same time, if the speech is truly libelous, that is against the law, and anonymity would not be protected. It’s not clear to me that calling someone a “skank” or a “ho” is particularly libelous though. Seems to me it’s not intended to be a statement of fact, but an opinion (she wasn’t actually stating the the person worked as a prostitute, after all), in which case it does not meet the legal definition of libel, and should be protected speech, whether you like it or not.

  2. Does this mean we will finally learn the identity of the person who wrote all of those great poems and quotes that end with – anonymous? I hope so. What about the people who give Dateline NBC or 60 Minutes an interview and have their faces blacked out and voices changed? Can the murderer behind bars file a suit to learn their identity?

  3. that will only move people who are concerned about their anonymity to better obscure their info.Google was following court orders but I hope the person wins her 15 mil.I don’t hide my identity but I don’t promote it either.there are plenty of people who got fired for just having a blog.there are cases when anonymity can stand on the way of life/death situation – i.e. school shooting in Colorado-type plan, this wasn’t it.

  4. I can certainly understand that what you guys are saying. Anonymity can be justified in the cases you’ve listed there. I guess what bugs me is that people use anonymous pseudonyms to spew negativity and flat-out falsehoods. I guess it’s just the part of me that thinks, “If you have a problem with me, say it to my face.”

  5. Pingback: Online Coward
  6. I think the first commenter made good points about libel vs. opinion. It is against the law to post libel whether it is anonymous or not (I think – I am not a lawyer), and I guess a court found the blogger’s comments to be libelous. I don’t think there is a law requiring ISPs to protect your anonymity, but I could be wrong… Is it against the law for an ISP or websites to break their own terms of service?

    I have always been extremely honest about who I am online. To a fault actually… many people think I am naive or too trusting, but I feel icky and dishonest hiding my identity – I also try not to say anything that will get me in trouble. ha!

  7. great post. i think it’s so ridiculous when people hide behind their anonymity in circumstances where they are insulting others. although i don’t agree with what this girl wrote, and think it was pretty silly, she didn’t deserve to be forced to show her identity. i agree with shane and logtar. i speak my mind. i am who i am. i don’t hide behind my blog (which i rarely use anyway).

  8. This is a tough issue. Let’s take Dan Ryan on gonemild.com for example. He makes no attempt to hide his identify except when it comes to issues related to his employer, the Catholic Church, the Archdiocese of Kansas City.

    He blocks comments that are not only critical of his employer, but comments that imply he has a relationship with his emp[loyer, which is really strange.

    Is it ethical to only be anonymous to your employer? And to go public with your blog and expect others to hide your identity? Is that even possible?

  9. My main problem with people complaining about anonymity is that it mostly comes down to them complaining about being deprived of ad hominem arguments. Dan Ryan being the perfect example.

    Dan never blogged about his job, or things remotely related to it. Others wanted to bring up his job to collaterally attack his authority to make other arguments. But who the hell Dan Ryan is and how he earns his paycheck has zero effect on the validity or soundness of his arguments.

    This isn’t actually a tough issue at all. Anonymous commenters making arguments based on publicly reported facts are no different than known commenters making arguments based on the same facts. Anonymous commenters attempting to present their own anecdotal experience are to be treated with even higher skepticism than known commenters making arguments based on anecdotal experience. But in both cases, anecdotal experience is, if not worthless, of limited value.

  10. My example was TKC,I don’t think knowing who he is makes the mayor any happier.But Dan and TKC and Shane and others chose to disclose their names. I think in this case more damage was done to the person whose identity was disclosed,I mean disproportionately more damage.I hope she wins.

  11. So, Sophia, let’s say Dan worked for Coca-Cola and he also ran a blog against soft drinks, where people commented on the evils of soft drinks. Let’s also say that Dan knew anti-soft drink libs really pissed off his boss. Would his CEO be correct to fire him?

    Dan, in reality, really thinks his boss will fire him because of his blog.

    Dan wants to be famous, have hamburgers named after himself, have people buy his lunch because he is an influential blogger — but he also wants people to hide his identity as a blogger to his employer – who is locally Robert Finn, the arch conservative Bishop and CEO of the Catholic Church in the area. His boss is famously opposed to liberal democrats, and Dan posts regularly on his liberal democratic blog, and tries to hide it from his boss.

    Is that ethical or smart?

    Sounds like Dan needs to adjust his blogging or his employment.

    It also sounds like Dan needs to get some balls.

    If you’re going to be a public figure, better bank on the fact people will at least take note of who you work for!!!

    It’s crazy to try to be a public figure, and at the same time try to hide your blog from your boss.

    Some would say even cowardly.

    It’s interesting Sophia, you defend the right of someone to disclose a confidential email about an EMPLOYMENT application, but you defend a blogger trying to hide his emplyment?

    Please explain.

  12. I would be surprised if in all the years of Dan’s blogging, some helpful person unlike yourself did not bring it up to his employer’s attention.

  13. Sean,

    It’s not difficult to understand when you’re not all hell’s bells trying to screw Dan. The embarrassing information revealed about Hendricks is not that he is looking for work, it’s that he’s a raging douchebag. In Dan’s case, you are assuming embarrassing information that does not actually exist at your disposal. You think you can reverse-engineer/bully him into some awful admission that will result in him getting fired. I have little doubt Dan’s bosses know about his blog. They, unlike you, respect his avoiding issues that might effect his ability to do his work.

    Hendricks did it to himself. Dan faces an endless stream of idiots who think they can bully him into doing it to himself, but he has refused to indulge them. I support him 100% in that regard.

  14. A lot of great points on here.

    Logtar, I like your post a lot…good stuff.

    Meesha, I don’t understand how the woman should win in a lawsuit against Google. Google was only adhering to the court’s ruling. All along, Google actually helped to defend her. But they lost. I don’t understand why they should be asked to pay $15 million to her. Perhaps she has just cause to sue someone, but not Google.

    Sean, I’m not sure what your beef is with Dan. At least he is honest about who he is. I can understand his desire to not talk about his employer on his blog if that’s not what his blog is about. I don’t talk about my employer (Cerner), but I also don’t block comments about them. Some companies have policies that allow blogs but discourage any type of negativity or mention of the company. I know this because I’m currently researching it for Cerner. I guess I kind of see your point, but I don’t think I agree with it.

    Sofia, the fact that Hendricks is a moron does not mean he “did it to himself.” Employment inquiries are very much protected by law. The person who leaked that should be held accountable. Doesn’t change who Hendricks is, but we didn’t need that post to know that really, did we?

  15. I admit to not knowing details but I am hoping that $15 million lawsuit was based on something,although it could be frivolous for all I know.So I will correct myself:if the lawsuit has grounds I hope she wins it against whoever is named in it.

  16. I agree, I do not like Hendricks but the employee who leaked the priviledged company communication should at least be disciplined.

    Sofia – that email, received by Ogden, instantly became the property of Ogden, not the personal property of the female who received it. It’s company property, and subject to company rules and privacy, not the whim of a vengeful employee acting inappropriately.

  17. Who’s blog is it anyway?

    As one who’s been on the hateful end of Sofia’s rants, both by name and anonymously, I’d disagree with the notion that its okay to be mean because you think someone’s a moron. Or egotistical. Even if you explain it in the most intellectual way. Meanness is meanness and wrapping it in the flag or high minded verbiage doesn’t take the stink off of it.

    A lot of people comment on blogs just to be mean and racist and hateful for all the reasons said here so well. Because they can be what they want without taking responsibility. Why they have the need, the anger, well that’s for someone with more letters after his/her name to speculate.

    We bloggers shouldn’t be wringing our hands here. We should just moderate our comments–both on our own blogs and on others.

    I expect most comments wouldn’t waste their time if they thought they wouldn’t get published. All a blogger has to do is delete one or two, and contrubutors will learn to behave just as children learn to behave if their parent only once takes them home from the theater in the middle of a movie. Probably, enough boomer parents didn’t do that.

    This isn’t that hard. There’s a difference between having a respected blog and a popular one. Tony’s is an example of the latter, not the former. he could be both. He has plenty to say about a lot of people in this town. I agree with a fair amount of it and I surely am impressed with his dedication. Yet a lot of it is pretty hateful. How strange that he’s quick to protest racism but he hosts more of it than anyone in town. That seems so, uh, tabloid. I think it diminishes all of us when he does. Yet, most bloggers go pretty easy on him. Maybe because they know he’s a link site and they don’t want to piss him off.

    It’s a game been played forEVER between both media and those who want access to it.

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