Anonymity, Defamation and Free Speech on the Internet

Whether through a Facebook page, an email, or a blog, the Internet allows average individuals to publish content to a wide audience quickly and cheaply. But on the Internet, unlike in the real world, one can often speak without his name or face being known to his listeners. While some use this freedom as a way to express controversial or unpopular opinions that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to, others use it to avoid accountability for fraudulent or damaging speech. What distinguishes the two, and just how anonymous is the content on the Internet?

As a rule of thumb, one should never consider anything viewed or posted online to be perfectly anonymous or untraceable. For example, in a recent New York Supreme Court case – in re Cohen v. Google – a fashion model in New York City sought to file suit for defamation in response to insulting comments and photos posted about her on a blog. When Internet titan Google, who hosted the blog in question, refused to disclose the blogger’s identity, the model applied for a court order to force it do so. The judge ruled in her favor.

The lesson here is that since Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can identify their users, it’s fair to assume that anything you can be sued for publishing in real life, you can be sued for publishing online. That’s not to say that every blogger who makes fun of a celebrity online should expect to be hauled into court. It’s probably more likely that most targets of such abuse are either unaware, indifferent, or disinclined to spend time and money on litigation.

Nevertheless, the blogger in Cohen v. Google took a risk by posting what she did. A simple disclaimer pointing out that her statements were merely opinion might have helped to protect her, but not necessarily. The First Amendment protects one’s right to speak anonymously, but only up to a point. Those who make false statements that harm others cannot expect courts to protect their identity. While the Internet undeniably does provide its users with some degree of anonymity, it’s important to know that it is still no shield for tortious or unlawful speech.