Skanks for nothing: Google must identify 'anonymous' blogger

Model Liskula Cohen has forced Google to hand over the name of an anonymous blogger who defamed her. Is this the end of free speech on the Net?

Remember when mom said not to worry when people call you names, it's the sticks and stones you need to watch out for?

Well, it turns out mom was wrong. Again. In this case, though, it's the name-callers who are in danger of getting stoned (no, not in that way).

[ Cringely points to more signs of changes on the Internet, courtesy of AT&T and 4chan | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Yesterday a U.S. federal judge ruled that Google must turn over the name of an anonymous blogger who took a severe disliking to aging supermodel Liskula Cohen. The ripples emanating from the ruling could potentially wash over every member of the blogosphere (including those who delight in anonymously depositing nasty comments on blogs -- you know who you are).

The backstory: In August 2008, some soon-to-not-be-anonymous blogger (STNBAB) created a Google blog called "Skanks in NYC" (no longer available, but archived at Mahalo). The sole topic of this short-lived blog: Liskula Cohen, a zygomatically gifted Canuck who has graced the covers of Vogue, Elle, and other magazines probably not in the bathrooms of most InfoWorld readers.

Among other things, the STNBAB called Cohen "a psychotic, lying, whoring, still going to clubs at her age, skank." He (she?) also called Cohen "an old hag." I bet that's the one that really stung.

(Note: This blog takes no position whatsoever on the relative skankiness of any supermodel, Cohen or otherwise. I'm sure they're all just sweet-natured gals at heart. Also: 100 percent virgins. But I digress.)

Cohen's attorneys sent a nastygram to the blogger, who immediately removed "Skanks in NYC" from Blogger.com. But it didn't end there. Last January Cohen sued Google, demanding it reveal the blogger's identity. Yesterday, the court ruled that Google had to hand over the only information it had: the blogger's IP and e-mail addresses.

So it looks like STNBAB is about to be sued for defamation, libel, and anything else Liskanka -- err, Liskula's attorneys can dig up. Bad news for him/her, but potentially worse news for the rest of us. Because if anonymous speech on the Internet is no longer anonymous, some people will simply stop speaking.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. There is way too much nastiness on the Net hiding under the shield of anonymity. The Skanks in NYC blog is a good example of this, but virtually every blog with any traffic suffers from the Anonymous D------ Commenter syndrome (fill in the blanks yourself). A lot of that would go away if people had to staple their own identities to what they actually said.

Yes, free speech is a good and powerful thing. But as a wise superhero once said, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Allen Wastler, managing editor at CNBC.com, finds some hope in the "skank ruling":

...I do get a little riled when "mainstream media" — by comparison to blogs — gets tagged for not being tough or hard on certain people or subjects. Hey, I could be the roughest, toughest bully Corporate America has ever seen ... if I could be anonymous and not worry about threatening calls from lawyers.

But when you work for a newspaper, a TV network, or an established Net news site, you have to follow the journalistic rules: You back things up, with your identity and your reporting ... or you get sued.

The flip side of this: Anonymous speech that really does need to be anonymous, like blogs by political dissidents in repressive countries. The tactics used by Liskula's attorneys are not all that dissimilar to those employed by the Chinese government to force information about its political enemies out of Yahoo, Google, and others, except of course that her attorneys don't have tanks.

How far this ruling will extend is unknown at this point. But I think the lesson here is be careful whom you attack on the Net, because they might be able to find you and fight back.

One long-term impact of all this is obvious, though: The search term "skank NYC" is now permanently anchored to Liskula Cohen's name on Google. If she was trying to protect her reputation, she went about it in exactly the wrong way.

So let's whack the hornet's nest again, shall we? What's more important: privacy & anonymity or identity & responsibility? Cast your votes below or e-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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