Another Court Tells Newspaper, Comcast To Reveal Identity Of Anonymous Commenters

from the anonymity-anyone? dept

In the US, we've seen plenty of lawsuits from politicians upset about anonymous comments on websites -- and most court rulings seem to recognize that commenters do have a right to anonymous free speech -- up to a certain point. The bar is usually where the speech becomes defamatory -- but even then the bar should be quite high, given the nature of online chatter and the (lack of) seriousness with which most people take it. Unfortunately, not all judges are so enlightened. JJ points us to the news that a court has sided with a town trustee in Buffalo Grove, Illinois (a Chicago suburb) ordering the Daily Herald and then Comcast to turn over info on the identity of an anonymous commenter. The details aren't entirely clear -- as the comments have since been deleted. But apparently the story involves that trustee, Lisa Stone, and her son, who got involved in the comment discussion. According to a separate report, The Daily Herald turned over the commenter's email address upon the court order, only to find out that the email address had been "deactivated". So, from there, Stone went back to court, demanding that Comcast hand over info on the commenter, which has now happened. Again, depending on the nature of the actual comments perhaps this isn't so crazy, but with the details given so far, this seems to be setting a dangerous precedent whereby politicians get to unveil anonymous critics, taking away their right to speak anonymously. That could create a serious chilling effect on free speech.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Oct 13th, 2009 @ 6:44pm

    Thank Gods

    ...that the Founding Fathers didn't have to deal with this kind of legal environment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Beta, Oct 13th, 2009 @ 6:52pm

    When are people who want anonymity going to learn not to give traceable addresses? When will newspapers who offer anonymity stop demanding or accepting traceable addresses? When will society start looking at the needless retention of sensitive information as unethical?

    "The arguments of lawyers and engineers pass through one another like angry ghosts." -- Bohm, Gladman, Brown

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Paul Alan Levy, Oct 13th, 2009 @ 6:52pm

    A mere order of disclosure is not disturbing by itself; there are, as you note, some comments that are truly actionable and, if shown to be false, can be the basis of a real defamation suit and thus properly the subject of an order to disclose the Doe's identity. However, the fact that, according to the Daily Herald article, "The exact comments were not part of the court record," suggests that the national consensus standard has not been followed because ALL of the courts require that the precise allegedly defamatory words be set forth.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    ChurchHatesTucker (profile), Oct 13th, 2009 @ 6:56pm


    Are you British, perchance?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. icon
    Brian (profile), Oct 13th, 2009 @ 6:58pm

    Re: Thank Gods

    I think if they saw the shithole the legal system was today a few things would be made a bit clearer in setup up the nation

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    NullOp, Oct 13th, 2009 @ 7:23pm


    So the politicians are at it again. Whining because someone called them a drunken, skirt-chasing old sod. The only place politicians are important is in their own mind.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 13th, 2009 @ 7:33pm

    "Anyone that's seen it (the post) on a professional level is deeply disturbed by it."

    Instead of deciding that for us, why don't you let US decide that for ourselves by allowing us to see the conversation? Or is it that you think we'll disagree?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    ervserver (profile), Oct 13th, 2009 @ 7:37pm


    When I make online posts about crappy politicians or whatever I for sure don't do so anonymously, love to have them turds contact me so i can tell them even MORE what I think of em

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Oct 13th, 2009 @ 9:09pm

    i wonder if these were posted from a comcast email account or if they're just attempting to track by IP?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Overcast (profile), Oct 13th, 2009 @ 9:22pm

    Sounds like he's an upstanding politician who believes in free speech. Must be true; whatever the comment was for all the concern.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Rich Kulawiec, Oct 14th, 2009 @ 4:02am

    Courts fail to grasp that none of it matters anyway

    Neither an email address nor an IP address is definitively identifying information.

    Consider: we routinely see acknowledged mass compromises of mail servers, especially freemail providers -- as we did just last week. These are but a a small sample of the much larger set of unacknowledged compromises that are far too numerous to bother listing. So there is no technical reason to believe that mail from actually came from Fred.

    Consider: we also know that there are at least (and this is now a 4-year-old estimate) a hundred million fully-compromised system out there. This not only means that any IP traffic from them cannot be linked to their putative owners, it also means that any email credentials stored or used on them are now available to the hijackers.

    The bottom line is that the environment we currently operate does not allow the linkage from email address or IP address to a human to be made reliably unless there are special circumstances/additional evidence which can independently corroborate this.

    Footnote: please note that ill-considered snake oil such as SPF and DKIM, both of which are utterly worthless technologies used only by those who don't have the intelligence to know any better, do not in any way, shape, or form solve or even mitigate either of these problems.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Whisk33, Oct 14th, 2009 @ 7:34am

    The right to speak anonymously

    The right to speak anonymously.
    Where are we given that right? The Bill of Rights gives us the right to face our accusers in criminal cases, so I would think that, if anything, I would expect the opposite. But there might be other precedents I am unaware of.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    I'm Just Trying to Help!, Oct 14th, 2009 @ 8:44am

    Re: The right to speak anonymously

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. icon
    Danny (profile), Oct 14th, 2009 @ 11:41am

    More on the story

    A longer version of the story was in the Chicago Tribune today,0,4615421.story

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    ForWhatIt'sWorth, Oct 14th, 2009 @ 2:50pm

    What's happened to old fashioned accountability? Has the internet raised a new generation of spineless commentators? If you can't say what you want to say in pride and courage, maybe you shouldn't be saying it in the first place.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Mancru, Oct 15th, 2009 @ 10:24am

    Re: The right to speak anonymously

    Just wanted to mention that the right to face our accusers is a right given those defending accusations in a criminal case. What I mean is in criminal proceedings you have "Accuser" vs. "Defendent", and the defendent, the one on trial has the right to face his accuser. Since in this case, the poster isn't starting criminal proceedings against Lisa Stone, this right doesn't pertain to this situation.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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