Friday, August 28, 2009

Last week, Google was forced to reveal the electronic identity of an anonymous blogger who had defamed an international cover girl online. While cyber victims welcome the move, some Internet users are outraged at the invasion of online privacy.

UNTIL recently, few people had heard of Liskula Cohen even though she has appeared on past covers of European Vogue and Elle.

Port: She and Cohen had met a few times.

Last week, the blonde Canadian-born model made the headlines in the US media and became a household name on the Internet and in the fashion world when she won a court case to compel Google to reveal the IP and e-mail addresses of an anonymous blogger who called her a “skank”.

Google initially refused to unmask the blogger, whom Cohen, 37, claimed defamed her by posting words like “skanky”, “ho”, and “whoring” beneath unflattering photographs of her. (The Urban Dictionary describes skank as a derogatory term implying trashiness or tackiness, lower-class status or promiscuity).

On Aug 18, a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled that a blogger cannot hide behind a web of anonymity while flinging ugly words at somebody online. Google did not appeal and proceded to hand over the electronic identity of the anonymous blogger.

In a statement, the company said: “We sympathise with anyone who may be the victim of cyber-bullying. We also take great care to respect privacy concerns and will only provide information about a user in response to a subpoena or other court order.”

It did not divulge the blogger’s name, though, saying it did not have it.

The electronic identity was good enough for Cohen to conduct her own investigation. Within a day, the anonymous skank-blogger had been unmasked: she turned out to be a brunette beauty from Florida, Rosemary Port, whom Cohen knew for three years and had met socially a few times.

Cohen is now entitled to file a defamation suit against her “frenemy”. She initially wanted to sue Port for US$3mil (RM10.6mil) but decided to be magnanimous and changed her mind.

The story goes that Port, a 29-year-old former nightclub hostess, was hurt and angry when Cohen allegedly gossiped about Port to her boyfriend.

In August last year, Port set up “Skanks in New York” on Google’s which she used to blast the former cover girl. Cohen was the only person featured on the website.

The blogsite was ordered by the court to be taken down in March this year after Cohen sued Google and the then anonymous blogger in January demanding to know the site creator’s identity.

While some quarters have dismissed the feud between the two women as a petty catfight that had wasted precious court time, there is concern the case has far reaching implications on bloggers who wish to remain anonymous.

Blogger Stan Schroeder believes the court decision would make people think twice about posting offensive posts and comments about someone, as they would no longer be protected by a shroud of anonymity.

“On the other hand, it might trigger a flood of similar lawsuits, perhaps for trivial reasons, which can in turn have serious implications on everyone’s online privacy,” he opined.

Michael Roberts, who calls himself an Internet Libel Survivor, is all for the victim seeking justice.

“The point is that defamation hurts the subject of a libel. Most of the population believe that these types of issues are petty and shouldn’t be clogging up the justice system,” said Roberts, an e-libel victim’s advocate.

“With all due respect to those who flippantly dismiss Internet libel as a petty issue, until you have personally experienced the 24/7 harassment and persistence presence of horrible things being said about you for all the world to see, you simply will not be able to relate to how debilitating and painful it can be.”

The Committee to Protect Bloggers however criticised the “skank” ruling, saying it would open the doors for countless others, including political and business interests out to silence legitimate critics through the threat of expensive legal challenges.

“The result highlights what bloggers need to pay more attention to: the law, how it applies to them and what they plan to do with their online writing,” the committee said in its blog.

“Those who will be putting their names to their writing would do well to peruse the links on this website regarding blogger’s rights, free speech, libel and copyright.” managing editor Allen Wastler felt the interesting court decision had some potential to change the blogosphere.

He admitted that he got a “little riled” when mainstream media – in comparison to blogs – got tagged for not being tough or hard on certain people or subjects.

“Hey, I could be the roughest, toughest bully Corporate America has ever seen ... if I could be anonymous and not worry about threatening calls from lawyers,” he wrote.

“But when you work for a newspaper, a TV network, or an established Net news site, you have to follow the journalistic rules: you back things up, with your identity and your reporting ... or you get sued.

“Now some bloggers, anonymous and otherwise, may get a taste of that legal repercussion.”

Cohen’s lawyer, Steven Wagner, said he hoped the decision would send a message to bloggers, Twitterers, and whoever else using the anonymity of the Internet for “cowardly defamation”.

“The rules for defamation for actual reality as well as virtual reality are the same,” Wagner said. “The Internet is not a free-for-all.”

When asked why she persisted with the case, Cohen, interviewed by Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America, snapped: “Why should anybody let it go? If somebody attacks somebody on the street, you’re not going to let it go … why should I just ignore it? I couldn’t find one reason to ignore it.”

In another interview with a New York tabloid last week, Cohen shared: “I’m a human being. I bleed. I have feelings. When I saw that blog ... it was awful.”

Port meanwhile is crying foul over the revelation of her identity. “I’m shocked that my right to privacy has been tampered with,” she said in a statement.

Her lawyer Sal Strazzullo said his client did not regret the blog but regretted the court’s decision that her identity be revealed.

If Google had thought the matter would rest after the Cohen suit, they couldn’t be more wrong. Port’s lawyer has indicated they plan to sue Google.