Your Comments Aren’t Anonymous

UPDATED 2/27/09; read the bottom of the post for more details.

I just found this interesting post over on Topix Chambersburg:

http://www.topix.net/forum/source/chambersburg-public-opinion/TCB69SLLD4383GT6N

Quoting from the article:

The company that owns and operates the York Daily Record/Sunday News readers’ comment posting Web site will release the identities of people who anonymously posted comments to a story about the stabbing death of Andrew Wright, according to sworn statements Friday in county court.

Prosecutor Timothy Barker informed Judge Thomas H. Kelley on Friday that an attorney for Topix LLC said the Internet Protocol addresses and personal information of the posters “has been preserved” and will be turned over when the company is served with a subpoena by the York County District Attorney’s Office.

This isn’t really news, but it might be a wakeup call to people who post comments — especially the trolls on PennLive.  When you post a comment, photo, video — really, anything — on a website, your IP address is logged.  What this means for the non-technical crowd is that someone with valid legal tools (such as a subpoena) can find out what you posted, even if you use a fake name and throwaway email address.

Let’s say your IP is 68.24.38.1.  And let’s say your ISP is Discount Donny’s Internet-O-Rama.  From your home computer, you visit PennLive and begin posting comments about the subject of a story.  You use the name “TruthForStupidSheeple” and make libelous statements about a particular individual.  Said individual gets mad, hires a lawyer, and subpoenas the folks behind PennLive.  PennLive will turn over the requested information (let’s say the subpoena asked for your IP and the email address you registered with).

Then the lawyer goes to work.  It’s very easy to see which ISP owns an IP.  The lawyer would then subpoena Discount Donny’s Internet-O-Rama to find out which customer was assigned the IP of 68.24.38.1 during the time given.  Discount Donny’s Internet-O-Rama, not willing to risk contempt of court and possible criminal liability for refusing to honor a subponea, will hand over your information faster than … well, pretty fast.

Next thing you know, the lawyer has your name, home address, and what effectively amounts to an affadavit from the ISP stating that you were the person responsible for that IP at that time.  A few weeks later, and you’re in court explaining why your First Amendment rights trump libel charges (and generally, they don’t).

So here’s my guaranteed way to defend yourself against libel (written defamation), slander (spoken defamation), and other related charges:

  1. Post the truth.  Truth is an absolute, bullet-proof defense against defamation.
  2. Label opinion as such.  Imagine I’m the subject of that story.  You can say “In my opinion, floor9 deserves what he gets”.  You can not say “floor9 is guilty” (unless this is the truth, and you have evidence to back it up).

This particular story wasn’t an issue of libel, mind you.  It’s about potential witnesses to a crime.  Regardless, the moral of the story stands the same:  You are not anonymous.  Your first amendment rights are neither unlimited nor unconditional.  Don’t post anything that you wouldn’t put down in writing with your own signature.

UPDATE:  As of 2/26/09, Chris Tolles, CEO of Topix, says he may or may not comply with the subpoena.  He also seemed to suggest that stories alleging that he had already complied were premature.  Challenging a subpoena is certainly possible, but actually quashing one requires a combination of circumstance, skill, and luck.   From what I can understand — the article is a little tough to swallow — Tolles appears to be saying that compliance with the subpoena is at his sole discretion, because Tolles is not bound by Detective Martz’s statement in court that Martz had spoken to Tolles’ attorney, who told Martz that Tolles would comply.

Either I’ve got that unbelievably wrong — a distinct possibility — or Tolles is getting his legal advice from some “OMG LEGAL SELF-DEFENSE FAQ”.

3 thoughts on “Your Comments Aren’t Anonymous”

  1. well sure, you could post the truth. But as we all know, ‘truth’ isn’t always a valid legal defense. you can be completely truthful and STILL get dragged into court and waste a couple hundred thousand just defending yourself.

    Personally, I try to always tell the truth as a matter of personal choice….but I’m also very fond of spoofing IP addresses and wardriving to find open wi-fi hotspots if/when I feel the need to comment on a board that isn’t trustworthy.

    I’d also have to say that yes, it IS possible to be anonymous and comment on a public discussion board. It’s time consuming, tedious and requires a certain level of technical expertise but it’s possible to remain fairly anonymous and get the truth out at the same time.

    And no, i’m not doing any of the above while posting here. I’m feeling lazy today.

  2. All true. Although truth IS an absolute defense (providing it can be clearly proven), it doesn’t actually stop you from being sued. Nothing does; just about anybody has the right to sue just about anybody else for just about anything. But having truth on your side means that you’re not guilty of defamation.

  3. As a third possibility, it’s entirely possible Tolles knows something I don’t. My legal experience is limited to representing myself at the Magisterial District Justice (plaintiff AND defendant, all successful; thanks) and watching proceedings at Dauphin County CCP, so I’m by no means qualified to speak on the intricacies of quashing an out-of-state subpoena.

    Maybe he’ll stop by to enlighten us.

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