Sunday, September 27, 2009

Google v. Skank

While it’s easy to hide behind your keyboard in a veil of anonymity, the expectation of privacy may be a thing of the past.

Last month, Google faced a subpoena to reveal the identity of an anonymous user of its Blogger service (i.e., the one I’m using now) posting to the blog “Skanks in NYC,” which has since been removed. The blogger, now identified as Rosemary Port, had called model Liskula Cohen a “skank” among other choice names.

Cohen decided she wanted to sue for defamation, and pushed the New York courts to issue subpoena, forcing Google to unmask their otherwise anonymous user. Unlike the California courts, which said that “skank” is a “derogatory slang term of recent vintage [and] has no generally recognized meaning,” the New York courts determined that “skank” is a specifically defined word and that the case could move ahead.

Yet, as soon as Google revealed Port’s identity, Cohen dropped the charges. Now Port is planning to sue Google for $15 million.

And as much as I like working the word “skank” into an academically focused blog, there are some real and significant implications here. According to Matt Zimmerman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “If average users on the Internet think that they can use the court system to just figure out who is being mean to them, I think you really open the door for abusing the court system.”

We’re still very much in Wild West phase with the web, adjusting norms, expectations and regulation as it evolves. The courts need to quickly catch up to adequately protect the First Amendment and our rights as private citizens, while understanding the threshold for should and can be legitimately enforced.

(Photo of Liskula Cohen, accused skank, via New York Daily News)

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