Anonymous speech on the web is not protected.
October 16, 2000 5:01 PM   Subscribe

Anonymous speech on the web is not protected. A Florida court ruling could force forum hosts to identify posters by name, if they post defamatory messages. Could this ruling lead to more civil exchanges on the net, or will curtailing unfettered speech reduce the amount and scope of many discussions?
posted by mathowie (29 comments total)
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I thought FREEDOM OF SPEECH is in the 1st amendment of the US constituition.
posted by Zool at 5:13 PM on October 16, 2000

I think they're saying that libel and slander in statements can not be protected by anonimity, which is unchartered waters for our legal system, isn't it?

I don't know how to feel about this, on one hand it could be very bad, but on the other, the same free speech limits in everyday life apply here and it doesn't seem so bad.
posted by mathowie at 5:21 PM on October 16, 2000

let's see, what would be the guideline for a paper that posted an anonymous article that was found to be libelous or slanderous? would the paper then be fined or the editor jailed? (I suppose they would be fined in any case.)

posted by rebeccablood at 5:23 PM on October 16, 2000

How exactly do you identify someone by name if all you know about them is the info they typed into your signup form?

posted by Mars Saxman at 5:38 PM on October 16, 2000

rcb, if the author of the article didn’t come forward or the paper couldn’t or didn’t refute the claims, the paper would be sued for damages and would likewise be found in contempt of court. Courts usually ask for sources to be divulged, if they aren’t that’s contempt of court.

E.g.; Nader 2000 is considering suing the NY POST over erroneous claims made about the rally in NY. The paper is defending it’s position saying that they were only repeating what sources said. They’ve refused to divulge their sources even though the claims were made in a column and not an article.

On another note, ITEM: MATHOWIE GAY? developing...

posted by a. nonimous.

posted by capt.crackpipe at 5:40 PM on October 16, 2000

so they would violate your privacy if you broke the law, basically?


posted by rebeccablood at 5:56 PM on October 16, 2000

How much weight does a libelous claim carry when it's made by an anonymous person anyway? Like, "Honey, I heard MoNsTeR-AzZ say George W. Bush wants to kill the elderly on the Playstation Frag-Fest Forum. It must be true!" I dunno. This is made especially wierd because the case involves a CEO crybaby who claims personal attacks hurt the price of his stock. Oh well, I heard he fucks sheep, anyway.
posted by Doug at 6:14 PM on October 16, 2000

this is a good thing. personal accountability and consistent application of the law are good things. just be careful if you chat or post when you're under the influence :) if a law is not Constitutional or consistent with your governing law, it should be challenged when appropriate. I think people tend to feel less responsibility about what they say when they're communicating from behind their monitor and while I doubt this will change the status quo much it'll expand the legal precedent to newer technology as is needed. now i gotta finish those scripts to hide my ip.......
posted by greyscale at 6:37 PM on October 16, 2000

In case you didn't know, don't invest your life savings in a stock based on some chat room discussion, (PYRAMID BREWERIES (PMID), is the "next best thing." Nor should you give any Duke female a chance to kick a football, since they can't handle being cut. Now comes the CEO who was harmed. Well, my lawyer will be contacting you for some harm done to me by reading this.

"What do I want the internet to be?" Keep that in mind when laws/rulings such as this come from the "lawyers know best."

posted by brent at 6:40 PM on October 16, 2000

Doug, recently someone posted what amounted to anonymous libelous claims about the state of a certain company and drove its stock down. He'd sold it short and made several hundred thousand dollars, but caused incalculable financial harm to the other investors in that same company.

In this case, they caught him, and he was just convicted and sent to prison. But what of all the people who panicked and sold their stock while it was artificially depressed?

Anonymous libel can cause enormous harm. Don't fool yourself.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 6:58 PM on October 16, 2000

doesn't the right to free speech come with the obligation to stand up for what you believe in? spewing libelous rhetoric behind an anonymous identity is akin to cowardice. i don't really see the ruling as an affront to the first amendment. free speech does not equal anonymous sniping.
by the way, my name is raymond van der woning and i believe in what i just wrote.
there i said it.
posted by daddyray at 7:57 PM on October 16, 2000

What about an individual's right to a reputation?If I was to say a public figure was a child molestor backing this up with some incorrect information and started posting on numerous online forums this would damage a person's reputation. Shouldn't I have to back up what I say with some evidence Rumours spread and mud sticks.
posted by jay at 9:11 PM on October 16, 2000

I remember the story you're refering to. And oddly, you have a point. There has to be some level of accountability on the internet. However, does that accountability fall in the hands of forum hosts? ISP's?
I mean, so far, with both these stories, it looks to me like we'll be getting legal precedents hurting privacy because people who trade stocks aren't too bright and spend a bit too much time in chat rooms.
posted by Doug at 9:21 PM on October 16, 2000

I don't have any sympathy for people who feel the need to post anonymously. I simply don't.

I'm not ashamed of my name and I'm not ashamed of the things I write, and I don't mind if anyone knows that they're my words. Everything I write I stand behind. If I was afraid to have my name on them, that's a good indication that they probably shouldn't be posted.

That's why I didn't pick some sort of clever nickname here, nor have I on any of the other boards where I participate; I always just use my name.

Here comes the controversial statement (drumroll): anonymous posting is cowardice.

I see no use for it and I think the net would be improved if it became impossible. (And it would cut way down on certain crimes, too, like pump-and-dump and a lot of warez traffic.)

It doesn't detract from my freedom of speech that I always use my real name to sign my posts, nor do I believe it would do so for anyone else.

I don't mind that people use "handles" here, since nearly everyone who does actually provides a true name or an email address or a web URL; that isn't really anonymous posting.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 10:16 PM on October 16, 2000

I live in a country where my name last name is the only one. If you go through my previous posts you can find out which country i live in. If you knew my name you could quite easily find out my address and phone number. That's the last thing i want going around the internet, as i don't need some psycho showing up at my place with a bomb straped to his/her chest.

Hey, you never know.

Also i'm very much against this selling of my personnal info. The less you know the better for me.

posted by Zool at 10:36 PM on October 16, 2000

I see no use for it and I think the net would be improved if it became impossible.

The Net would lose a lot if people were forced to participate under their real names at all times -- such as people who need anonymity to speak freely (battered wives in a support forum being a classic example) and people who aren't comfortable with nutjobs chasing them down because of an online flamewar. I had a guy on Usenet go after my reputation with several clients because he disagreed with something I wrote, and it's an experience that drives people out of a forum (or forces them to never say anything that might generate controversy).

A rule against anonymity also would be terrible for kids who use the Internet to chat. Can you imagine the potential for pedophiles if children were identified fully in Internet chat rooms and other places where conversation takes place?
posted by rcade at 10:47 PM on October 16, 2000

Well, the AOL users will be easy to figure our, cause they have to give credit card information to use AOL obviously.

However, the Yahoo users may be tougher to track if they were halfway intelligent, and entered in false information on their sign-up form.

I do this with every sign-up form I encounter on the net. And yet I still get a ton of Junk mail from solicitors even though our phone # is unlisted and other measures I take to prevent it.
posted by da5id at 11:02 PM on October 16, 2000

Re: identifying someone by name

IP address tracking, I'd guess. It's an easy enough thing to do, and most message board packages have it as an option.

After they get your IP address they contact your ISP and ask/demand log files so they can track the IP at the time of the posting down to an individual computer/phone number.

After that they knock on your door. It's been a while since Networking 101, so the above might be completly erronious.

Re: cowardice

Anonymous posting is sometimes cowardly. It's also something that's occasionally nessecary. There's the age old example of the recovering alcoholic who posts to an online support forum, but doesn't want their identity revealed.

Blah blah blah.
posted by alan at 11:06 PM on October 16, 2000

It was my understanding that unless logs were actively collected by the government (carnivore) they were not admissible as evidence in a court hearing. Therefore ISP logs would be only a starting point for law enforcement to track someone down (I am not a lawyer, I just play one on TV).
posted by Mick at 5:54 AM on October 17, 2000

Using a regular nick isn't being anonymous, Steven, and I think you know that.

I personally don't use my real name 'cause I was BBSing for years before this Internet thing came along, and nicks is what you did on BBSes. I've changed nicks once, to cCranium. Actually, a while back (year? two?) I wanted to revert to my original nick (Jynax, in case anyone actually gives a damn :-) but it's damned near impossible to do, because my Nick is my Name, online, and whatever credibility I may have associated with my Nick would be lost.

And so would my mid-range user id! Gasp! :-)
posted by cCranium at 7:02 AM on October 17, 2000

Steven, I guess you practice what you preach, because on your web site you include pictures of yourself, as well as a history of your name. I was slightly dismayed to not find your social security number or home address anywhere on the page!
I'm all for anonymity. I'm for anonymnous posting, abonymous protest, all those good things. But, in the interest of good faith, I'd like everyone reading this to know that my name is Enigo Montoya.
posted by Doug at 7:07 AM on October 17, 2000

If the court thinks making people use their real names will cause them to think before posting, they need look no further than Steven's "anonymity == cowardice" comment for proof to the contrary. Steven, do you not think the right to privacy has any value or meaning?

Of course that becomes a grey area when libel or slander comes into play, but ending net.anonymity to make sure the losers who pull those sorts of stunts can be found and prosecuted would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

And for the record, I'm about as non-anonymous as they come, out here, but some very unsettling stuff has been happening to me (and some other people, some of whom post here, and to their families) to make me start re-examining the wisdom of that. Offering details would be imprudent, but suffice to say that a GeoCities account with a username like "darkshadowlady" is suddenly looking real appealing :> Probably everyone who's out here for any length of time deals with some sort of stupid stuff like that sooner or later---and the Internet as you'd rebuild it would put zero barriers between the unbalanced, fledgling-psycho faction of the internet and those of us who see it as a social interaction like any other, i.e. to be undertaken with at least *some* caution for your safety.

I wouldn't walk into a bar or nightclub with my name, address, and social security number on a sign around my neck, and if ever the laws should turn in such a direction that that's the price of admission to the internet, I'm going to take my ball and go home.

*fortunately* (she said, coming back to the topic at hand) this news story is only about ISPs handing over the names of people who've already arguably forfeited their rights to privacy by going over the line of someone else's---but it seems as if, to comply with a law of that sort, ISPs and/or forum hosts and/or other online service providers would be forced to demand and verify proof of identity, and that sounds large and messy. What would metafilter be today if Matt had to do identity checks on every single person who ever wanted to post a comment?
posted by Sapphireblue at 7:54 AM on October 17, 2000

>What would metafilter be today if Matt had to do identity checks on every single person who ever wanted to post a comment?

Well, I'd feel safer. :-)

Isn't this par for the course though? Suggest picture ID's for handgun owners and the lobbyists can't stuff money in Congress' pockets fast enough. Magically, the internet is suddenly tangible and controllable by a limited number of entities because one thing we got online IS anonymity, which means I can spout "vote Nader" all I want but actually vote for someone else in real life. This drives political action groups of all flavors crazy. Remember the skewed polls before the New Hampshire primaries that gave something like 15% of the vote to Alan Keyes (I believe)? Then after the primary, the candidate got something akin to 1%. I defer to the poilitical junkies in the audience to set the record straight.

I agree with the upthread sentiments that if you're getting your news and views from "k00ld00d99" in a chat room, you're probably getting what you deserve.

RE: Getting stock advice online, in any form or fashion, here is a great example of reality biting people on the ass ("arse" for holgate's benefit). When I worked for IKON, their stock ranged from $80 to $100/share. See how the mighty have fallen.

And read the "discuss this stock" comments. Highly amusing, if you're into that sort of thing.
posted by ethmar at 8:10 AM on October 17, 2000

I think the proper analogy for courts to use when deciding how to deal with anonymous defamatory (libelous/slanderous) comments is the public bulletin board. In some online systems anyway, you can truly post anonymously, so how is it any different than if I snuck up to a bulletin board in a community center or a college campus and posted notes claiming that Mathowie cheated on his SATs? So if that's the proper analogy, then how are such cases dealt with? I imagine the post is removed and nothing is done. Obviously online systems allow a bit more tracking (IP address, etc), and in serious cases perhaps that should be pursued. Then there's the case where the user is registered on the system. Ultimately I think that if a criminal post was made to an online system, the online system should give whatever information they have about the post to law enforcement, but if the system doesn't collect any data, then I guess the law is out of luck.
posted by daveadams at 9:21 AM on October 17, 2000

Here comes the controversial statement (drumroll): anonymous posting is cowardice.

There's a difference between foolish risk-taking and courage, just as there is a difference between prudence and cowardice. Just because a thing is true does not mean it is safe to say. There's a reason for the anonymous comment box at most companies; if it weren't anonymous, it wouldn't be safe, and nobody would use it.

posted by Mars Saxman at 10:18 AM on October 17, 2000

I would ask why the law should be different just because you used a computer to say something. Average slashdot poster's response: " because it's on THE INTERNET which is a SPECIAL PLACE where laws should not apply ".

Laws apply to people. People using computers are not exempt. Next!
posted by dhartung at 3:13 PM on October 17, 2000

Yes. IP address is, in general, still the way you're identified and held accountable for any internet transaction. You get a unique IP when you connect to the network, it's logged and associated with your account, and anytime the authorities want you they just get the logs, your information from the time, IP, and account.
posted by greyscale at 5:31 PM on October 17, 2000

Anonymous postings on the Internet are here to stay. The more the courts try to stamp out your right (although I don't think it is a right in the legal sense) to post anonymously, the more certain people will go out of their way to build anonymizers. It's not hard.

I don't understand how it can be cowardice to want to speak your mind without the threat of frivolous law suits. Read the article:

"The ACLU had wanted the court first to rule on whether Hyde had actually been defamed before identifying the defendants"

So these people are presumed innocent but their identity must be made public so they can be sued. And they're cowards? What a load of bullshit. Sounds like they have a good reason to seek anonymity. This CEO just wants to use his lawyers to screw them. Where is the justice here? Why are they cowards?

I was recently sued by a large company. There was no fairness and no justice. I would really like to say especially nasty things about the company, but they'd just sue me again. So I'm not going to do it unless I can be anonymous. I don't want to say anything that isn't true, but that isn't any protection. I'd get sued and it would be cheaper to settle.

The idea that I'm a coward if I want to use anonymity to protect myself is bullshit.
posted by y6y6y6 at 5:58 AM on October 18, 2000

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. I thought FREEDOM OF SPEECH is in the 1st amendment of the US constitution."

Not everyone on the net lives under US law, surprisingly. It could be said that US citizens still dominate the net.......but that's another point altogether. the web is supposed to be a ww beastie. "Web" being the last part of that.

If someone puts out a racist leaflet, that incites someone else who is perhaps vulnerable, stupid, and/or psychiatrically ill to kill a person because of what they read there, I think that hurts our society, and hurts me individually, since I am part of this society.

You can't have a "right" without a concomitant responsibility. Yet you never (or rarely) hear about the responsibility aspect of "free speech" you never see it. You just see and hear about the "right"

posted by lucien at 11:44 PM on October 18, 2000

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