The headlines are filled with news of Google’s court-ordered exposure of a blogger’s identity after the blogger allegedly wrote defamatory remarks on her website, “Skanks in NYC.” For some reason the blogger, Rosemary Port, thought she was entitled to write anything without consequences because of the First Amendment right to free speech and anonymity.
She was wrong.
The incident has been referred to as cyberbullying, cyberstalking, internet defamation, online harassment, and cyberterrorism by citizen journalists and bloggers who either don’t know the difference between the terms or don’t care. Because internet law is defining itself before our eyes, it’s easy to get confused. Some recent court cases, though are making the differences between these online offenses clear.
On September 19, 2006, Sue Scheff was awarded $11.3 million after a person repeatedly posted statements about Scheff on public forums and internet sites which attacked her personal character and business practices. This was a case of internet defamation or internet libel because the defendant’s statements were published, because they accused Scheff of illegal, immoral or unethical conduct, and because they caused damage to Scheff’s personal and professional reputation. At the time, this was a landmark decision and the largest settlement ever awarded for internet defamation.
On August 21, 2009 Keeley Houghton pleaded guilty and was sentenced to spend three months in a young offender institution after verbally attacking another teen on Facebook for four years, and posting a death threat. This was a cyberbullying case because it involved threats, harassment, humiliation, and embarrassment, and because both people involved were minors.
In November 2007, Tracy Adams was convicted of 10 counts of computer trespass after he repeatedly hacked into his ex-girlfriend’s computer to retrieve personal information and use it to cause chaos in her life. In July, 2009, 18 year-old Bryce Dixon pleaded no contest to first degree cyberstalking after forwarding photos of his ex-girlfriend’s breasts to others. Dixon could have been sentenced to as much as 30 years in prison in this case, but was sentenced to probation and anger management classes instead.
Both of these cases are being referred to as cyberstalking, because they involve the use of technology to maliciously harass, threaten or intimidate out of anger, revenge or desire to control. Cyberstalking is a term that is used liberally, but which is associated mostly with cases involving some sort of sexual communication between an adult and a minor, and cases which involve ongoing harassment, usually by an ex-spouse or romantic partner.
On August 6, 2009, a “distributed denial of service” attack (DDos), was launched against Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, LiveJournal, and Blogger, which overloaded their servers, crashing their websites for hours and days. The same type of DDoS attack had been launched against several U.S. government websites In July, 2009, including the Treasury Department, FTC, Pentagon, and Homeland Security Department. These incidents are being labeled as cyberterrorism, although that term is generally reserved for incidents that cause physical harm, extreme financial harm, or death.
While boundaries of behavior on the internet are in the process of being defined, the legal rulings so far are basically sending the message that the behaviors that are against the law in the real world are equally criminal in cyberspace.
For some reason there seems to be an assumption among many web users that the only rule on the internet is that there are no rules. But freedom of speech has always had legal limits, with defamation legal proceedings dating back to the 1700’s.
There has never been complete absolution granted by the First Amendment. Some internet writers, however, seem to be operating under the belief that absolution is possible if they hide behind cyberspace anonymity when they attack, harass, or harm others with words.
That belief is wrong.
That was the message that the court was sending with the surprisingly high amount of money that was awarded to Sue Scheff, which included $5 million in punitive damages. The judgment sent the clear message that free internet access does not mean the freedom to say or do anything without consequences.
In Scheff’s case, the judgment was against a woman who had posted negative comments, insults, and false statements in forums and on websites – hundreds of them in just six months. Some of the negative posts were published under anonymous pseudonyms and some comments were posted as if they were written by Scheff herself, although she hadn’t engaged in the conversation.
Because of the frequency of the posts and constant reference to her name, a Google search of “Sue Scheff” returned pages of results that were linked to these online accusations, insults and misrepresentations. In the eyes of those who believe everything they read on the internet, Sue’s personal and professional reputation was destroyed. Sue had become the victim of a “Google bomb.”
“A public shaming has to be one of the worst things anyone can experience, whether it takes place in a small community or on the larger stage of media coverage,” Scheff says in her book about the case. “I wasn’t able to sleep. I was starting to cry a lot in private. The smile that had been so quick before had become strained and forced when I attended meetings or public events. I wasn’t hard-pressed to force too many smiles since my invitations were drying up.”
Scheff co-authored her book, “Google Bomb,” with the lawyer who helped her secure the landmark judgment, John W. Dozier, Jr. In the book Dozier provides legal insight about internet defamation, and also provides some proactive advice about steps that can be taken to protect your reputation even before you are attacked.
“The monsters of the web are thieves in the worst way” Dozier wrote in the book. “They steal your name and your reputation, strip from your grasp the opportunities our America offers, convert your pride to embarrassment and your honor to shame.”
At the heart of internet defamation, which seems to have grown to pandemic proportions, is the issue of anonymity. Blogger Rosemary Port has announced her intention to sue Google for revealing her identity as the owner of the Blogger “Skanks” site on which objectionable remarks about a New York model were posted. Port believes that Google has violated her right to privacy by revealing her identity, and consequently, making her accountable for her words.
“I would think that a multi-billion dollar conglomerate would protect the rights of all its users,” Port was quoted as saying by the New York Daily News.
This issue of internet anonymity is addressed in “Google Bomb” by Dozier, who has watched the concept get challenged in a number of court proceedings. “There is no absolute right to online anonymity,” Dozier says in the book. “The courts have long recognized the need to unmask those who hide behind false identities on the Internet. Those who defame, those who spam, those who hack, and in some circumstances those who use wrongful commercial speech… their anonymity is rarely protected.“
It is this anonymity which makes the internet a breeding ground for defamation. “They are scared to disclose their identity because they don’t have the courage to stand up to their convictions,” Dozier says in “Google Bomb.” He adds, “They are scared to get caught. Free anonymous speech is their virtual ski mask as they threaten and rob families and businesses of their livelihoods and good names.”
The media attention given to the “skanks” case, and the court-ordered accountability that Port faced has left the blogosphere buzzing and the Twittersphere tweeting with questions about accountability and limits. There is a heightened awareness about both the motivation and the effect that written words have, especially when they are accessible to billions of people.
It is not the right to express yourself freely in a public forum that the court is reining in with these recent decisions. Rather, the limits are being placed on the right to cause harm to others because you have the ability to anonymously access a public forum. For the victims, it’s about regaining the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which internet defamation, cyberbullying, and cyberstalking steal.
“I think you have to walk a mile in those shoes to completely grasp the intensity of desertion and despair that those of us who have lived it feel,” says Scheff.
“Google Bomb,” written by Sue Scheff and John W. Dozier, Jr. is scheduled for release on September 1, 2009.