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Google Asked To Reveal Blogger Identity

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Another anonymous blogger is in the defamation hot seat after anonymous commentators labeled a local school board member a "bigot," an "anit-Semite," and even "ugly." The target of those words didn’t take kindly to them and is demanding that Google reveal both the identity of the blogger and the commentators.

Google Asked To Reveal Blogger Identity
Google Asked To Reveal Blogger Identity

And Google says they’ll do it, too, if the court says so, at a cost to the petitioner of $75 per hour. "Orthomom," the blogger in question, has until April 5 to file an objection.

The full details of this case are not so interesting – it’s a local school board cat fight. As the son of two public school teachers, I can speak from experience that these things, more often than not, devolve into bloodthirsty, political cheap shots. So I’ll spare you the background.

But the case again brings up the important question of what constitutes libel, the limits of free expression, and the right of anonymity. More specifically, it addresses these issues as they pertain to blogs, forums, social networks, and websites.

An important fact up front is that Orthomom made none of the questionable comments. Yet, Pamela Greenbaum, the offended school board member is seeking to have her identity revealed as well, in order to file a defamation lawsuit.

Greenbaum is petitioning Google to release data and/or printouts identifying the person responsible for the blog, including registration records, renewal, and IP addresses, and also data identifying the person(s) attributed to "Anonymous."  

On January 11, 2007, following a heated local debate involving public and private schools, some of the Long Island Orthodox Jewish community, 300,000 of which it is claimed follow Orthomom’s blog, began hurling insults directed at Greenbaum.

These insults included anonymous statements like:

Pam Greenbaum is a bigot and really should not be on the board.

greenbaum is not to be believed

If history is a guide, She will make it a dirty campaign, so be prepared.

Pam Greenbaum, refusing to ever agree with an Orthodox Jew, now opposes protecting children.

Orthomom and her attorney have put forth a few arguments against Greenbaum’s demands, not the least of which is that Orthomom herself never made the comments, and that, as a provider of an online forum, she is protected from actionable third-party comments by the oft-cited Section 230 of the US Code.

In a subsequent blogpost, Orthomom defends herself this way:

The bottom line is that an anonymous commenter calling someone a "bigot’ in an an anonymous forum is simply not defamatory… The statement is clearly one of opinion, not fact, and it is further tempered by the fact that an anonymous commenter is not considered a credible source by the vast majority of readers.

In addition, the bar is even higher to prove a statement as defamatory when one takes into account that Ms. Greenbaum is a public official, as the commenter would have had to show malice – which is legally defined as "falsity or reckless disregard of the truth".

 

And it’s difficult to prove malice, if the statement is an opinion, which everyone, in the US at least, is entitled to. For precedent, let’s look at an opinion statement as it has been questioned in the past. There are a number of words to examine, like "ugly" or "racist," but the host of the blog Krum As A Bagel wins the prize for libel research with a legal explanation of "dumb ass":

A statement that the plaintiff is a "Dumb Ass," even first among "Dumb Asses," communicates no factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation… depending on context, it may convey a lack less of objectively assayable mental function than of such imponderable and debatable virtues as judgment or wisdom.

Here defendant did not use "dumb" in isolation, but as part of the idiomatic phrase, "dumb ass." When applied to a whole human being, the term "ass" is a general expression of contempt essentially devoid of factual content. Adding the word "dumb" merely converts "contemptible person" to "contemptible fool."

Plaintiffs were justifiably insulted by this epithet, but they failed entirely to show how it could be found to convey a provable factual proposition. … If the meaning conveyed cannot by its nature be proved false, it cannot support a libel claim.

So yes, you can, legally call someone a dumb ass, or pretty much any other vague insult.

Paul Alan Levy, attorney for Orthomom, probably says it best though, as he pushes for dismissal (which most seem to think is likely):

The right to criticize anonymously on the Internet is a fundamental free speech right and an important tool for whistleblowers and consumers who speak out about the misconduct or corruption of big companies or public figures.

Those who want to intimidate their critics with the threat of identification, but who have no real basis for suing, should learn from this case that they cannot file suit and then expect to withdraw if the critics are ready to fight back. Companies and powerful individuals who try this trick should be prepared for the financial consequences.

Which, I take to mean, there will be a countersuit. Should be interesting to watch.

Google Asked To Reveal Blogger Identity
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  • On the other hand

    Why Does Google Publish Libel?

    “At a time when Google proposes to amass ever more sensitive and personal information on Internet users worldwide, Google’s lack of responsibility in actively distributing unsupported libel has given many, real cause for concern. It is the unique status of libel law in America that allows Google immunity from prosecution from anything they publish on www.google.com. And yes, that includes anything they’d like to publish about you” claims Brian Retkin Director dotWORLDS.

    London, England 5/31/2007 6:24 AM GMT (TransWorldNews – Top Story)

    By allowing defamation, libel and character assassination to be posted on their Search Engine by the unverified, the alias and the anonymous, Google undermines and threatens individuals and corporations alike

  • Tiredofthelibelanddefamation

    My wife and I have been harassed by a stalker who has posted disgusting blogs in my name. He is calling me a pedophile and making the most egregious defamatory and libelous and of course untrue comments. This sicko began stalking us after we visited his store and we caught him making unauthorized charges on my wifes credit card. This is the tactic that the stalker uses on many many victims. I have emailed and used the message form on Googles Blogger and Blogspot sites. I am pissed that no one is doing anything to stop these postings. And what’s worse is that they will not ever reply and they will not remove the blogs which clearly violate their own Terms Of Service. Some of the blogs are impersonating me and using my name with my name in the headline and the word pedophile. Why is Google allowing this? This is not the American way. I want to post the entire staff names of Google Blogger and Blogspot and call them pedophiles and see how they like it. I bet it would be taken down in moments. I have promised to sue Google and I will. They are lucky that I am not some crazy homicidal maniac because it is enough to drive some people mad. I read that Google could be a propaganda tool and that the people running Google do not care about our freedom because they are russian and have built the company on principals which are contrary to those which would protect our individual safety. For those who think all spech is free and protected, just walk into a courtroom and call a judge an explitive and you will see what I mean. Likewise Google cannot continue protecting stalkers who are ruining peoples lives with defamation and libel using Googles services. google must be made responsible for their role.

  • Lora Sharnoff

    By googling my name, I recently came across a very libelous and distorted account of my behavior at a book-reading at the Tokyo American Club. I asked the author, David Benjamin, whose book, “Sumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport,” is riddled with errors, some very pointed questions, in the hope that some members of the audience would realize how little he knows about the subject in which he claims to be an expert (though he neither reads nor speaks Japanese). The original version of his book did not even get the number of divisions in pro sumo correct, which is akin to setting oneself up as an expert in American baseball without knowing the number of teams in the Major Leagues. Nevertheless, my questions did not sit well with some blogger using the name Misherru (Tomorrow in Tokyo), who was present that night. Not only did she distort their content, but she also made the false claim that I was escorted out by someone with training in Israeli self-defense (at 158 cm., I’m sure I looked so threatening–snark) and then ended with the libelous assertion that I was “the only one in the room who had shared a bed with a sumo”–something patently false and something neither she nor Benjamin is in any position to know about. Google will apparently not remove such libel without a court order, but I don’t even know the real name of this blogger.

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