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Editorial: It’s not about freedom of speech

Last week, a New York Supreme Court judge ordered Google to reveal the IP and e-mail address of one of its Blogger platform users. Said user had fired up a blog called “Skanks in NYC” that took many swipes at Canadian model Liskula Cohen.

Cohen took issue with being called a “psychotic, whoring . . . skank” and a “ho” and generally having her appearance, sexual conduct, and personal hygiene maligned. Questionable photos with even more questionable comments about them irked her as well.

Feeling she had been defamed, the model wanted to take legal action against the blogger. Problem was, the blogger was anonymous, hiding behind the digital mask that so many commentators don online.

Like others in history who have hidden behind a mask to protect their identities, actions and words that the unmasked would never contemplate freely flow from anonymity of a keyboard. Blogs and comments on news sites and even the blogs themselves are full of off-colour language and pot-stirring missives.

She wasn’t spewing hate, but the writer of Skanks in New York wasn’t exactly Miss Manners either. The questionable postings were vicious attacks using cruel language.

In the U.S. anyway, it’s protected free speech to say you believe someone is badly behaved. It’s another thing to imply incorrectly that the person sleeps around, especially if you know it isn’t true.

Free speech proponents will say people should be allowed to express whatever opinions they like. But slander and defamation are not protected forms of speech. That’s been true for the printed word for years, and should be true for the virtual word as well.

Simply hiding behind a digital mask should not protect one from facing the music or at least from allowing an aggrieved party like Cohen to confront their accuser.

The arguments about protection of privacy are also specious. Anyone who uses the Internet should know they leave a digital trail behind them. You may only post your username or “handle” online but you can still be traced, tracked, and exposed. Anonymity is just a veil but in combination with a bit of an audience, it can turn normal people into real nasties.

And the truth is, people should be held accountable, especially if they’re deeply personal and have the capacity to really harm an individual’s reputation and ability to work. Cyberbullying or other types of harassment that can lead to injury or even death should also be valid reasons for outing anonymous posters.

So should Google be forced to give up information identifying individual bloggers? The law surrounding this thorny issue is in it infancy. The ruling by the New York Supreme Court will start to build case law in this area to create standards for when ISPs or digital media companies will have to hand over information.

Google says if the courts order it, the company will provide user’s information and remove content found by the courts to be defamatory.

This time, Cohen got the e-mail address of the blogger and found her to be an acquaintance known from dinners and parties. She called her and says she has forgiven her. Perhaps that will be the end of it, perhaps Cohen will still sue.

Either way, it’s skanks for the memories as the blog has now disappeared into the ether.

- Gail J. Cohen

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