I was ridiculed by many of my peers for my stance on the skanks of NYC, and one person in particular actually warned me off doing the story altogether because it made me look foolish taking the side of gal using the Internet as a shield to bash and troll a runway model. I was told by Google fanboys that Google was legitimately doing everything it could in these legal cases, and for me to suggest otherwise was ignorant.
I still stand by my original statements: It’s important that companies who profess to believe in the sanctity of free speech on the Internet and the importance of anonymity fight long and hard as long as they can in these sorts of cases.
Not but a few short weeks after the NYC case where a district judge ‘forced’ the search giant to reveal the identities of an anonymous commenter, a defense attorney for a man charged in the death of a four-year-old girl in Houston is using the very same tactic to elicit the identities of anonymous commenters at various Houston news outlets.
Bert Steinmann, The Woodlands-based attorney for Coe, said he was struck by the conclusions people drew about his client and the specificity of some comments that made it appear they came from people with personal knowledge of the case.
Coe, 27, and his girlfriend Abigail Young, 33, were charged after Young’s daughter Emma died June 27 of blunt-force trauma to the abdomen. In June, Young took her daughter to the emergency room after the child stopped breathing. Coe is in custody, and Young is out on bail. Both are charged with injury to a child.
Those who comment generally use pseudonyms, and the lawyer has asked for identifying information on about 300 of them.
The lawyer said most of the media outlets have already moved to quash the subpoenas.
This is the perfect example of where anonymity is sacrosanct to the evolution of a news story, and where anonymity should be protected.
It directly brings to mind a quote from the landmark 1995 Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission:
Protections for anonymous speech are vital to democratic discourse. Allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views . . . Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. . . . It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation . . . at the hand of an intolerant society.
Just because there is the theoretical possibility through legal muscling you can find out the identity of everyone that comments on a news story concerning you or a client doesn’t give you the right to violate that privacy, at least not from a common sense perspective.
In Google’s failure to challenge the district court judge’s ruling, they’ve painted a very large target on the back of everyone who signs a comment with “Anonymous Coward,” and thus dealt a major blow to the intrinsic trust that exists within the many news and conversational hubs of the Web.