Randy Cohen’s “Guideline” for Anonymous Blogging: Ethical or Legal Matter?

by on August 26, 2009 · 29 comments

Liskula CohenRandy Cohen, who pens “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine, wrote this week about the “skank case,” or the controversy surrounding the recent legal outing for an anonymous blogger who called fashion model Liskula Cohen a “psychotic, lying, whoring … skank.”   Thanks to a recent court decision, we now know that the blogger who uttered those words is Rosemary Port, a 29-year-old Fashion Institute of Technology student.  And she now apparently plans to sue Google for revealing her identity to the court. [As a shameful aside, can I just say that there has never been a nerdy Internet legal battle that involved two more smokin’ hot women than this! Sorry, I couldn’t resist pointing out the obvious.]

Rosemary PortReflecting on this catfight in his NY Times Magazine editorial, “Is It O.K. to Blog About This Woman Anonymously?” Randy Cohen asks:

Has anonymous posting, though generally protected by law, become so toxic that it should be discouraged? It has. To promote the social good of lively conversation and the exchange of ideas, transparency should be the default mode. […]

Here is a guideline. The effects of anonymous posting have become so baleful that it should be forsworn unless there is a reasonable fear of retribution.  By posting openly, we support the conditions in which honest conversation can flourish.

But Mr. Cohen never specifies whether he is talking about an ethical guideline or a legal guideline. There is a world of difference, of course.  As a matter of social or personal ethics, I think many of us would agree that anonymity “should be forsworn” and we should encourage people to “post openly.”   I always live by that rule myself when blogging or posting comments on other sites, whether they are blogs, discussion boards, or even shopping sites.  But that is my choice. I would not want that choice forced by law upon others.

Some might say, why not? Isn’t it just as good of a legal principle as a social norm? Absolutely not. The chilling effect would be substantial.  Of course, some would say, ‘Fine, we need to chill a little speech when that speech gets too heated or vulgar.’  But that’s a dangerous line we should be wary of asking judges to cross.  As is always the case in matters such as this, it comes down to a line-drawing exercise regarding what should constitute “acceptable speech.”

The better approach is to take Mr. Cohen’s “guideline” and push for its general acceptance for some (perhaps most) websites, but leave everyone free to decide whether anonymous posting and comments remain in place.  We don’t demand identification here at the TLF, for example, because we don’t necessarily mind what some shitheads (you know who you are!) will say about us or our views. But we certainly try to encourage people to self-identify by signing in first and “claiming” their comments.  Most do. A handful don’t. And still others do sign in but leave comments under a pseudonym.  I say let the various models continue to flourish across the web while also encouraging bloggers and websites to adopt Randy Cohen’s general rule as a website “best practice.”

Can self-regulation, social norms, public and press attention, and external pressure form others encourage some of the most vitriolic voices of the Net to moderate their tone?  Perhaps not.  With a platform like the Internet, you have to be willing to accept some silliness from those loonies who haven’t quite learned how to responsibly use this wonderful tool that has been put at their disposal.  But I will take this approach over the forced surrender of our anonymity any day of the week.

Other views: Dan SoloveKathleen Parker of the Washington PostMaureen Dowd of the New York Times; UK GuardianBelle de Jour” column; Richard Korman of ZDNet; Chris Matyszczyk writing at CNet News; JR Raphael writing at PC World; Lance Ulanoff of PC Mag.com

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