In what may be a precedent-setting case, two former Yale University law students have settled their suit brought against some 30-plus anonymous commenters who posted derogatory remarks about them on an internet forum called AutoAdmit. The comments, which ranged from standard insults to those of a more sexually explicit nature, were so vile they prompted the women to sue in order to out the identities of those doing the commenting. According to the plaintiffs, the suit was necessary because the discussion board, a site designed for law school graduates, was often monitored by firms looking to hire. Because the comments were associated with their names, the women claimed that it would hurt their chances of being offered a job.
This case had been in litigation for years, having been originally filed back in 2007. The problem stemmed from the fact that internet sites such as AutoAdmit are essentially able to operate under different rules than those that apply to TV and newspapers when it comes to libel. This is due to a law called "Section 230," which immunizes internet publishers from legal harm. At the time of its establishment in the 90's, however, those "publishers" were the ISPs themselves - the AOLs and CompuServes that delivered Internet access to consumers. The idea of bloggers, social media publishers, and anonymous blog and forum commenters didn't really exist yet and therefore wasn't taken into consideration. That meant the women weren't able to sue the operators of the discussion board website itself, but had to go after the anonymous posters instead. That, of course, was quite the challenge.
In the end, the women's attorneys were able to identify some eight or nine of the anonymous posters, according to the Hartford Courant and they settled with some of them.
Because the terms of the settlement were confidential, the lawyers representing the former students, Heide Iravani and Brittan Heller, would not discuss them. However, San Francisco attorney Ashok Ramani, whose firm, Keker & Van Nest took the case pro-bono said that the their clients were "very pleased with how the case went." The women had sued for monetary damages so a settlement means they were likely awarded at least some of the amount they had hoped for.
Was the Settlement a Win or a Loss? Depends on Who You Ask
Marc Randazza, the attorney for one of the defendants scoffed that if the women's intention were to have the negative comments removed, their interests were very poorly served. "Now there's even an Encyclopedia Dramatica page for them," he told the Yale Daily News.
However, David Rosen, one of the women's attorneys and a Yale Law professor, countered that unmasking some of these anonymous posters who were hiding behind pseudonyms and then holding them accountable for what they said had accomplished "the fundamental goals of the case." He thinks the suit may even have some internet commenters thinking twice before posting. The possibility of a lawsuit "may make some people pause before posting comments that are malicious and completely indefensible," Rosen was quoted as saying.
Will This Really Change Things?
While obviously a major case, this suit isn't the first time a defamation case like this has been brought to court. In fact, only months ago, an anonymous blogger using Google's Blogger.com service was sued for rants she made about a fellow model, one Liskula Cohen, on her site "Skanks in NYC." The victim sued to reveal the identity of the malicious blogger. Thanks to a judge's ruling that Google must hand over to Cohen any identifying information they had on the site's creator, the blogger in question was revealed to be Rosemary Port. (She's now suing Google for not protecting her).
Although a slightly different case, the womens' suit involving the forum commenters also succeeded - at least in part - in revealing the identities of those posting the defamatory messages. Combined with the prior example, it will be interesting to see what impact these cases have on the online world. Will this lead to more lawsuits where alleged victims seek to out the identities of their internet foes? Will it lead to more self-policing among the commenting community? Will internet trolls actually think before they type?
It's too soon to say, but it's possible that a kinder, gentler - and possibly more boring - internet may be in our future.Discuss