Why Internet anonymity matters

Google is at the heart of another Net anonymity battle, this one between muckraking journalists and a Caribbean land developer. Will the search giant roll over and crush the little guys?

Over the last few weeks I've spent probably too much time thinking and writing about the Liskula Cohen libel case ("Skanks for nothing: Google must identify 'anonymous' blogger" and "A skank discussion: Privacy, anonymity, and misogyny.")

Mostly because a) it's a lot of fun, and b) it concerns one of my favorite topics, the always lively Internet Anonymity vs. Privacy vs. Personal Responsibility debate. Besides, how often does an IT blogger get to write about catty supermodels, skanky or otherwise?

[ Also on InfoWorld: "A skank discussion: Privacy, anonymity, and misogyny" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Today I'm hitting that topic again, but from the opposite direction.

Despite what some tenacious commenters may have thought, I was not defending the right of the now-not-so-anonymous blogger (better known as 29-year-old Rosemary Port) to anonymously defame. Otherwise, the Internet would be one big slanderfest (or, at least, more of a slanderfest than it already is). There needs to be some disincentive for completely juvenile behavior.

But today brings news of a case where anonymity on the Net absolutely needs to be protected. It too involves a court subpoena ordering Google to turn over private information; in this case, the names of the owners of tcijournal@gmail.com, the e-mail address for The TCI Journal, a muckracking news site based in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Apparently, people in T&C don't spend all their time listening to Jimmy Buffet, eating conch, and drinking mojitos out of hollowed-out pineapples with little umbrellas stuck in them. They also spend time exposing people who allegedly bribe government officials.

Attorneys for one of the alleged bribers, developer Dr. Cem Kinay, are now suing The TCI Journal in California in what some are calling a case of "libel tourism." (Not to be confused with a defamation vacation.) In other words, the developer in T&C chose to sue in a California court because U.S. courts make it easier to demand a company's records.

Here, nobody is calling anyone a skank. The TCI Journal mostly appears to have been reporting on an inquiry into government corruption and reprinting letters from readers about the topic. Lawyers for the developer wanted the site to redact any mentions of the developer in its reports, which to its credit The TCI Journal declined to do.

According to Wikileaks, which knows a thing or two about floating money laundering operations and whistle-blower anonymity, TCI's anonymous journalism...

... culminated in a dramatic UK governance takeover of the Islands on August 14. A trail of evidence dug up by the TCI Journal, a UK commission of inquiry, and others, showed that foreign property developers were giving millions in secret loans and payments to senior Islander politicians, including an alleged $500,000 cash payment to the Island's now former Premier, Michael Misick.

A litigious bunch, these developers also sued the commission and the T&C government to force it to redact the final commission report, blacking out their names. Not to worry, though: Wikileaks got a copy of the unredacted 266-page document and posted it online. The official redacted report is published at tci-inquiry.org. (If you've got time, scroll through the unredacted one -- it's a juicy read.)

Attorneys for the big developer have gone after the site's Web host and domain registrar, managing to take the site offline for a few days. Now they're attempting to wrest the owner's information from Google.

According to Marshall Kirkpatrick at Read Write Web, Google sent the Journal a letter warning that unless TCI sends Google a letter asking them to quash the subpoena, they have no choice but to roll over on TCI.

TCI is not the New York Times by any stretch. It's a tiny volunteer-run organization with cojones the size of coconuts. So in addition to reporting on government corruption, it's been publishing all the nastygrams it's received from Kinay's legal team -- which, of course, they also want redacted from the site.

Wait, it gets better. Someone calling him or herself "TCI Controversies" started the TCI Citizen blog at Blogger.com shortly after the unredacted report appeared. The blog's sole purpose seems to be trashing The TCI Journal. Of course, it's anonymous.

Someone (probably the same person, judging by the writing style) has also been planting anti-TCI Journal stories on sites like AllVoices, which will publish contributed articles from anyone without any human intervention.

Now I wonder if TCI Journal will sue Google to get the names of the folks behind that defamatory blog. Bet you 20 coconuts the authors have a more-than-casual relationship with those developers.

Attempts at suppressing negative press are hardly unheard of in this country -- corporations try to do it all the time (Steve Jobs, your iPhone is buzzing). Few of them pursue it so aggressively, though, or try to stomp out the sources of bad news. Whether The TCI Journal survives probably depends on whether they can afford to pay attorneys to protect them.

So this is why anonymity is important: Not so people can make nasty comments about anyone else just because they feel like it, but to help the little guys who are trying to serve the public and don't have the resources to protect themselves against corporate or government attacks. If Google can't or won't do it, someone else needs to.

Should the right to anonymity be protected? If so, how? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me: robert_cringely@infoworld.com. (Hopefully, cringe@infoworld.com will be working again soon.)

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