Google Helps Identify Anonymous Blogger
Free speech has always been an irritant to those who become the target of it; freedom in general is a frightening concept to some because of the broad blanket it throws over the righteous and the sinful alike. And as always it seems many people support the freedom concept so long as it supplies protections for the liberties they themselves choose to enjoy—enjoy the wrong set of liberties and you’ll suddenly find far fewer true believers in the founding principles of the American experiment.
Google makes no such philosophical judgments anymore when dealing with subpoenas. The search engine made its (eventually failed) grand stand against the Department of Justice’s demand for search records a couple of years ago. Since then, any document coming from a law enforcement agency has been treated as sacrosanct.
The most recent incident involves handing over information to the Jacksonville, Fla. Sheriff’s Dept. to help identify an anonymous blogger critical of the pastor of a local Baptist megachurch. In September of last year, the pastor, John Blount, filed a police report regarding “possible criminal overtones” on the blog FBCJaxWatchdog, hosted on Google’s Blogspot service.
Once Robert Hinson, the detective assigned to the case, received a subpoena requiring Google “to provide all information, including names, screen names and address, of the anonymous writer,” Google blindly complied. Though Hinson closed the investigation because he found no criminal activity, the church issued a trespass warning to Thomas Rich and his wife, apparently now excommunicated from First Baptist Church. Hanson has investigated two other bloggers as well.
What’s very important to note here is that, despite the Sheriff’s office saying the detective was just doing his job, law enforcement was able to force Google to reveal the identities of a law abiding citizens exercising their right to anonymous free speech based on accusations of possible criminal overtones in written communication, not based on any actual evidence of wrongdoing. In effect, Blount and Hinson, and Google by default, presumed Rich guilty until proven innocent.
The power structure’s desire to strip anonymity from the digital landscape is reaching disturbing levels. It has grown beyond the “three times makes a trend” rule in journalism and becomes a full-blown epidemic—it’s happening all over the country and world. A Kentucky legislator was famously shouted down for introducing a bill that would outlaw anonymous commentary. An Alaskan politician recently outed an anonymous critic for no reason other than he didn’t like anonymous bloggers. German police raided a Wikileaks volunteer because of the anonymous leak and posting of a secret Australian website blacklist.
A bill recently introduced in the US Congress and passed by the House of the Representatives at the end of March is intended to prevent the federal government from compelling a journalist from revealing his or her sources. However, it still contains language defining who is considered a journalist, and by default, who is not. According to the bill’s language, an unpaid, unprofitable blogger would enjoy no such protections.
Quite obviously no branch of the government (apparently anywhere) cares about the First Amendment rights anonymous bloggers or nonprofit, gadfly bloggers. And, as per usual, where the government actively seeks to deny the rights of citizens in the digital realm, the citizens will find no refuge in terms of service agreements of large corporations, nor in surface-level digital democracies.
Like your privacy, your right to anonymity is an illusion.