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Landmark Ruling: Judge Orders Google to Hand Over Identity of Anonymous Blogger

As an online reputation management consultant, I often find myself on both sides of the fence. Sure, I help a lot of companies and individuals with their reputation needs, but I also study and comment on the effectiveness of the different methods and tactics open to a brand’s detractors.

A new court ruling provides the perfect platform for discussing both sides of the fence.

As SMH reports, a US judge has ruled that Google must hand over the identity of an anonymous Blogger.com author that posted defamatory remarks about glamor model Liskula Cohen. In a series of attacks, the blogger behind “Skanks in NYC” made many disparaging remarks about Cohen, including:

“How old is this skank? 40 something? She’s a psychotic, lying, whoring, still going to clubs at her age, skank.”

The blogger’s attorney tried to claim that these remarks were not defamatory and merely one person’s opinion or “trash talk” as he called it. The judge didn’t buy it.

“The thrust of the blog is that the petitioner is a sexually promiscuous woman,” Judge Madden wrote in her judgment, noting that the comments were run alongside photos of Cohen in suggestive poses.

Now Google has to hand over the identity of the blogger so that Cohen can identify and sue that person for defamation. Whether she wins that or not, that’s for another judge to decide.

So, what are the lessons here?

First, for defamer. While defamatory laws (especially in the US) provide some means of protection for opinion, it often boils down to whether or not it’s portrayed as fact and if the general public will assume its a fact. If you go on the attack, you have to be sure the claims you are making are legitimate. You can’t just say “in my opinion” then reel off a laundry list of damaging statements.

Also, anonymity is coming to an end on the web. In my opinion, this is a good thing. I’ve seen too many companies have their reputation burned by an anonymous blogger–one that is just as likely to be a competitor fabricating lies, as a real customer. So, if you have plans to attack anyone’s reputation, don’t assume that you can do so in the safety of anonymity.

For the recipient. This could set an important precedent for using the legal system to weed out defamatory detractors. While this ruling is against Google, it is likely to become an important asset when asking any judge to force a web business to hand over the personal details of an anonymous detractor. If the most powerful internet company in the world can be forced to hand over the identity of a detractor, it stands to reason that any company can.

There are few times that I ever advise a client to take legal action, but blatant defamatory comments are certainly one of them. With this ruling–and if other judges follow suit–it will make it easier for businesses battling reputation issues. It’s one thing to stand-up and face legitimate criticisms of your business, but at least now there’s an option for exposing those that have less than genuine intentions.

The bottom line? I’ve spent the last half a decade touting the virtues of being Radically Transparent. It now looks like that transparency is going to be felt on both sides of the fence.

(via)

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    It’s unfortunate that people still have to finance expensive court costs in order to get ISPs to reveal the information in their logs in cases of clear defamation. I remember approaching an ISP about 10 years ago concerning defamatory remarks one of their clients had made about me. They told me they would take action (to enforce their terms of service) when I won a defamation judgment. Several attorneys looking at the situation told me they thought I had an ironclad case — and it would cost me $5,000 to $20,000 to prove that in court.

    In advance.

    With privacy advocates hammering on services like Google to shed their data more quickly, anti-defamation advocates need to step up to the plate and start hammering on ISPs to be more cooperative in enforcing their terms of service.

    Too many TOS violations are still ignored or magically transformed into DMCA takedown requests when ISP customers break the law. That bad ISP behavior needs to change.

  • http://www.brandmuscle.com Marketing Manager

    Hello,

    I applaud you for covering this article. Just as there is a line between real journalism (which must include the reporting of accurate facts and balanced coverage) and libel/slander, there must also be a line as to how a subject/topic is covered or presented in the social media/micro-blogging domain. The medium should not be devoid of laws and guidelines that govern other media.

  • Buck Stops Here

    As a victim of cyber crimes this ruling is fantastic news! I, too, will contact my attorney tomorrow regarding malicious posts written about me by a deranged, psychotic lesbian!

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  • http://sayreonline.com Brennan

    I think it is a good ruling but this definitely needs to be taken on a case by case basis. Right now the internet is the wild west where anyone can say anything and hide behind anonymity. If someone has real journalism that cites sources and facts then they should be able to protect sources and protect their real names with pen names but someone who writes a blog just to harass and slander then they should be outed.
    .-= Brennan´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at =-.

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  • http://www.notjustaboringdentist.com Brad C DMD

    I agree with one of the previous commentors. This has to be taken ona case-by-case basis. My biggets problem with this is that it opens up a can of worms in terms of corruption. Who decides what comments are “criminal”? This sets a precedent for the government to possibly try to uncover the identity of any dissenter. This may sound paranoid, but with the white house collecting an “enemies list” and asking for neighbors to turn in neighbors, I don’t put anything past the government
    .-= Brad C DMD´s last blog ..Angrydentist’s thoughts of the day- August 18 =-.

  • http://www.medicinenet.com/ yoonod

    please continue refueling!

  • http://taylor-and-associates.com Allen Taylor

    This is a good ruling. I don’t publish anonymous comments on my blogs. I figure if a person can’t put their name on it then it’s not important enough to be a public statement.

    I too hope anonymity has seen its better days. I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe in responsibility and hiding behind a cloud (or a white hood) isn’t taking responsibility. It’s hiding from it. The law should be clear about the repercussions of actions done behind an anonymous veil and the preponderance of evidence should tilt in the favor of the accuser (at least in terms of forcing a revealing of the anonymous person’s identity). The next step is to hold search engines and ISPs legally responsible for acting as an accomplice after-the-fact when they protect the anonymity of people breaking the law or recklessly damaging the reputation of others.
    .-= Allen Taylor´s last blog ..How $5 Doubled My Income Within 7 Days =-.

  • http://www.technologyslice.com.au Technology

    That’s setting a scary precedent for all bloggers.

  • http://www.rexxfield.com/internet_libel_help_online_smear_campaign.php Michael Roberts Internet libel victim’s advocate

    Nice summary Andy, I have on several occasions tried to persuade judges for various cases that a low-tech home-based anonymous blogger can be as devastating to an individual who relies on the reputation as a vandal who destroys a farmers livestock and burns his barns.

    Let’s hope that this New York precedent will be adopted by all other jurisdictions, the language in the order was straightforward and quite persuasive.

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  • http://www.etipinc.com/universal.asp?cat=maint Tractor engine heater

    I think every person should have a sense of moral standard in his head before he speaks or write about anybody. We are capable of knowing what is hurtful and what is not. Somehow we can know a person’s character by the words that comes out him.

  • http://www.website-content-providers.com Misty

    Anyone who post defamatory comments should be prepared to appear in court. It’s surprising that so many get away with it by being anonymous.
    .-= Misty´s last blog ..Simplified Internet Marketing Strategies =-.

  • http://www.webmarketingwatch.com Sage Lewis

    Ever since Yahoo turned over the identity of journalist Shi Tao to the Chinese government who reported on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, I’ve really sided with anonymity.

    I understand the pain of being abused online by anonymous asses.

    But getting the government involved in this is dangerous territory.

    Personally, I don’t think Google should abide by the ruling.
    .-= Sage Lewis´s last blog ..Favorite Places on Google Maps =-.

  • http://www.greg365.com Greg Habermann

    Interestingly enough, the blogger is planning on suing Google for not protecting her privacy…

    http://blogs.siliconvalley.com/gmsv/2009/08/quoted-1108.html

  • Pizzaman7

    This is another assult on freedom of speech. So an anonymous blogger insulted her. So what ? So we are now going to have the courts decide what is defaming ? What if we have negative comments against our government ? Are we all going to be silenced ? This is another extension of the Political Correctness ruining this country. May be we all should not speak to one another anymore for fear that we would be sued. What a joke. I have never heard of this lady. So what are her “damages”. I guess we will have actors claim that they lost out on a film because of “damaging comments” even if they were not right for the part or other reasons.

    This is a very slippery slope. Sad to see. I suppose someone is going to sue me now……

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