Why the 'skank blogger' ruling is not a good thing

Nobody much likes the idea of Internet trolls who use the shield of cyber-anonymity to write hateful things about people on blogs or in comment sections. It's tempting to drop the hammer on these people in a manner similar to a judge who, last week, ordered Google to identify the author of a defamatory blog called Skanks in NYC.

But sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. This is one of those instances.

The story of Liskula Cohen and Rosemary Port has gotten a lot of attention over the past week -- probably more than it deserves. Cohen is a former model; Port is a younger acquaintance and fellow fashionista who named Cohen the "#1 Skanky Superstar" and called her "a whore," among other things, on an anonymous Google-enabled blog.
And that's where the story should've ended. Instead, Cohen went to court to safeguard her reputation, a judge agreed with her that she'd been defamed, and Port was exposed as a trash-talking, backstabbing nut-job. (Now she says she's going to sue Google for violating her reasonable expectation of privacy.)

Justice? Sure, if you consider only this one instance. But what happens once the principle gets extended? Companies that provide a platform for users to publish their views can handle this in one of several ways. They can take responsibility for deleting anything they consider defamatory -- something they'd prefer not to have to do because of the enormous amount of manpower it requires. They can warn users, in their terms of use, that they will turn over personal data under certain circumstances.

Or they can help their users to hide their identities even more effectively. That was the route chosen by Juicy Campus, the college-gossip website that made headlines last year by serving as an utterly uncensored forum for all the raunchy, nasty, vile rumors and invective its users cared to post. It boasted of collecting no data on its posters, and even advised them on how to mask their IP addresses to be extra sure of never facing a lawsuit.

Juicy Campus shut down earlier this year; it didn't have much of a business model. But there are lots of publishers that would like to offer their users the ability to post opinionated and even mean-spirited comments without fear of getting sued for libel. Some of them will look at what happened to Google and decide that Juicy Campus had the right idea. In trying to make people accountable for the vicious things they write online, that judge is only going to force them to cloak their identities ever more effectively.
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