Friday, August 21, 2009

Google forced to reveal blogger, angers privacy groups

Google, the Internet search giant, has been obliged to reveal the identity of a blogger who called magazine model Liskula Cohen [pictured], amongst other things, a skank. Using a US court to force Google to reveal the identity of the blogger has for some established a troubling legal precedent. Although the judge did not rule the wording in the blog constituted defamation, he said that another court might make such a ruling and therefore the identity of the blogger would need to be revealed in order to allow a separate case to proceed.

Such cases have occurred before according to a site developed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation amongst others. The organization says such cases are "threatening to overturn the promise of anonymous online speech and chill the freedom of expression that is central to the online world. CyberSLAPP cases typically involve a person who has posted anonymous criticisms of a corporation or public figure on the Internet. The target of the criticism then files a frivolous lawsuit just so they can issue a subpoena to the Web site or Internet Service Provider (ISP) involved, discover the identity of their anonymous critic, and intimidate or silence them."

Others are more critical. Paul Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum in San Diago said bluntly, "You can get a really beautiful model and a sympathetic judge, it's a lightning strike situation that can set precedent. We're watching this really closely and we're concerned about this. This is the really tough intersection between free speech and defamation" Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said of the Cohen case, "The notion that you can use the court as your personal private investigator to out anonymous critics is a dangerous precedent to set. This doesn't change the rules ... but I think the practical impact is that litigious people will see this as a green light to try to out critics."

Much of the case hinges on whether the comments could rise to the level of defamation, which requires the statements to be provably false. The difficulty is that a relatively modern word like 'skank,' while clearly derogatory, does not necessarily have a defined meaning. Wikipedia returns several references, including a dance related to ska, grime and hardcore punk, a Brazilian pop band and a technique of muting some strings yet playing the strings adjacent to the unmuted strings. The dictionary definitions referred to are a slang term for slut and another for cheating. Even slut may have several non-definable meanings, ranging from a pejorative term meaning an individual who is sexually promiscuous an insult or offensive term of disparagement, meaning dirty or slovenly. It may also be used as an expression of pride in oneself or envy at the sexual successes of others.

How far this case develops is unclear. It is also unclear how far this precedent might extend, which is what concerns many privacy groups. Will politicians look to unmask bloggers that accuse them of being brain dead, in bed with corporate interests or other demonstrably false things? have set up a legal guide for bloggers and a number of tips on their website. According to EFF, The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the First Amendment right to speak anonymously: "author is generally free to decide whether or not to disclose his or her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one's privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be...the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry. Accordingly, an author's decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."

Internet risks

But outside the US there is constant concerns about remaining anonymous. Yahoo! has been widely criticised by Reporters Without Borders and Human Rights Watch over the handing of information to Chinese authorities which resulted in the arrest of journalist Shi Tao and dissident Li Zhi. In December 2003 Li Zhi was sentenced to 8 years imprisonment for "inciting subversion" while Shi Tao was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2006 for "providing state secrets to foreign entities". Jiang Lijun a Chinese freelance writer was also detained by the Chinese government aided by information provided by Yahoo. Arrested and detained since November 2002 for posting articles on the Internet which the government considered subversive, Jiang remains in custody despite receiving only a four year sentence. Another individual Wang Xiaoning, an engineer by profession, posted electronic journals in a Yahoo! group calling for democratic reform and an end to single-party rule. He was arrested in September 2002 after Yahoo! assisted Chinese authorities by providing information. In September 2003, Wang was convicted of charges of "inciting the overthrow of the state" and sentenced to ten years in prison.

For those using the Internet to publish ideas and thoughts there's always been an element of risk. Unsavoury or critical comments about employers on Facebook has resulted in sackings. Some Facebook users have suffered from abuse and victimisation leading in some cases to suicide. Bloggers too run the risk of being hauled over the hot coals. Many dismiss the seriousness of bloggers and Twitter users. Indeed not all are serious nor do the contributors hold to rules of professional journalistic standards. Much that is written on some blogs is little more than tittle tattle and points of view. But blogging is a democratisation of the web. Twitter too has freed the web. While of course the veracity of information cannot always be immediately established, the reputation of individual bloggers and Twitter users is changing the face of citizen journalism.

Internet restrictions

While it may not be an immediate threat to the likes of CNN, BBC, Reuters and others, the 2.0 web generation poses a great threat to certain governments around the world as they try to stifle the flow of information. In Iran during recent elections Internet restrictions were imposed, though they were not entirely successful. But in China the restrictions are far tighter. Since March this year the Chinese government has tightened its grip on the Internet. YouTube and Blogger have been inaccessible since march while most other social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, FriendFeed and Picasa Web Albums were blocked in June. Chinese social networking sites have also been shut down. Micro-blogging sites Digu, Zuosa, Fanfou and Jiwai all remain blocked, though two Facebook style sites remain available including the popular Xiaonei website.

The blocking of news websites is sporadic. The Huffington Post was inaccessible until recently but the China Digital Times and The Epoch Times remain blocked. Danwei, a website about media, advertising, and urban life in China, also remains out of bounds to those within the People's Republic of China. Even the satirical online magazine Weekly World News is blocked. The reason is unclear though it may be linked to an August 15, 2005 article claiming that China were planing to "buy up America". Another possibility is that Xinhua, the state news agency, inadvertantly used the supermarket tabloid as the source of a story entitled "Sexy school teachers help students concentrate". The story of course was fictitious.

Chipping at the Great Firewall

Blogging and tweeting from China, despite the risks, is also difficult due to the blocks. Even the use of proxy servers does not always help. Server Errors still frequently occur. Freegate, freely distributed with the help of the US government, helps to a point, but is by no means perfect. E-mail still provides a useful tool. E-mail to blog facilitates the posting of article to Blogger, though formatting can go a little awry as readers may have noticed. Posting pictures is also problematic or impossible, and of course adding links also poses a problem. Twittering through the Great Firewall is achieved only via a proxy or by using the Twitter Gadget available for use in the Google ig page. At least it works for know. Tweetdeck no longer works and services like dabr, twitzap and other net based sites also fail to connect with twitter. But still cracks continue to appear in the wall, and recently the US company announced it was to launch "feed to email" service. While not perfect, the new technology will allow web users in countries with Internet censorship to bypass the blocks put in place by their political leaders.

One way that governments block access to information is to blacklist the unique internet protocol address used to identify "inappropriate" sites. Websites can circumvent this by changing their IP addresses, or sending users to proxy servers, which disguise which site the user is attempting to connect to. However governments are growing increasingly savvy, and China with the help of CISCO, Juniper and of course the assistance of Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft are able to continuously block the new IP addresses and proxy servers as they are assigned, engaging websites in an endless and almost impossible cat-and-mouse game.

The Chinese government recently abandoned plans to roll out its Green Dam software on every computer in the country. The tool would have effectively bought censorship directly in to the home, stopping at source any searches or web use deemed inappropriate by the government. Internet cafes will still need to have the software installed however, as will computers used in schools. The US government's feed to email may be a small nail into the coffin that is the Great Firewall of China. It remains to be seen if it really begins to crack.

Back on point

As for the “psychotic, lying, whoring...skank” Liskula Cohen, her attempt to seek redress has over throwaway comments on a blog has only served to gain her negative publicity, as well as fuel the debate about Internet freedom. While some leaving their views on newspaper comment forms were applauding the decision others were far more dismissive. " It is either a libel or it isn't ... if the statement can be proved to be true, then fine, but why make defamatory statements if you can't prove them?" one Archullus writes in the Telegraph. Trebor Ebagum retorts, "Well, she does have a face like a hod carriers elbow."

Others more seriously "The web is the last bastion of free speech. Let's keep it that way. Was this woman's life in danger? Clearly no. Is she a publicity seeker? Clearly yes. Is it normal to expect that people who want to be in the public eye should attract occasional ridicule? Yes. Only in blogoshpere is everyone's comment "equal". Let's keep lawyers and famous people from using it purely to suit themselves."

Another, writing under the name M P Jones, says, "Nobody takes defamatory attacks or opinions expressed anonymously serious [sic] - they just show that the person launching them is an idiot - unless of course, there is truth to the matters raised in this manner. If so, it is not defamation. So, unless you have very, very thin skin, in itself making you an object of cyber ridicule, there is no reason to pursue anonymous bloggers. I think that the more important principle here is protecting political dissidents and whistle-blowers rather than the odd human clothes rack who has got her knickers in a twist." Well there you have it. A "psychotic, lying, whoring...skank" who looks like a "hod carriers elbow" has "got her knickers in a twist" and made herself "an object of cyber ridicule" while threatening Internet freedom and blogging anonymity to boot. Good one.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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