Another court upholds Internet anonymity. 01/8/15 ReleVents hed: A win for free speech dek: Another court upholds Internet anonymity. By James Mathewson
I started out with this publication on its lowest wrung–as an intern. One of my first assignments was to write about a bizarre case. AOL was being sued by a Caribbean scuba company because one of its users anonymously posted a libelous statement on an AOL travel discussion group, claiming that a scuba instructor from the company was “stoned all the time.” The scuba company wanted damages and it wanted AOL to give up the identity of the lister so that it could pursue a libel case against him or her. The scuba company lost both claims.
Every case that pushes for the identity of anonymous Internet posters since that time has followed that court’s ruling: People have the First Amendment right to publicly say things anonymously, even if those things are libelous or otherwise illegal. AOL’s lawyers likened AOL’s refusal to give out the identity of anonymous Internet posters to newspaper reporters refusing to give out the identities of anonymous sources.
Before I took the intern job for ComputerUser, the editor of the student newspaper for which I wrote and edited–The Minnesota Daily–was serving jail time for refusing to give up the identities of anonymous sources who could serve as witnesses to an assault case. She would still be in jail if a judge had not thrown out the contempt of court charge on First Amendment grounds. The judge was simply following more than a century of precedent. AOL’s lawyers argued that AOL is in a similar position to my former editor, and its judge agreed.
(The other part of the ruling–that an Internet service company is not responsible for illegal behavior occurring on its servers–fell when a court ruled that Napster was legally responsible for its users’ copyright infringement.)
Because of these experiences, I’m not surprised to see a