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Libel Suits Raise Issue of Privacy Rights of Anonymous Posters

December 10, 2009

Actor Ron Livingston is suing an anonymous defendant in California courts for libel.  Livingston alleges that the culprit repeatedly edited the actor’s Wikipedia entry and made it appear as though he was in a homosexual relationship.  Livingston also alleges the defendant created false Facebook profile pages for the “lovers” in order to post their relationship status.

This suit might hinge on a common privacy concern: what is the likelihood Facebook and Wikipedia will give up the identity of the user who created the ruse?  Lawsuits that try to uncover the true identity of anonymous bloggers are common, and most are unsuccessful

In this case, however, it could go either way.  The Wikimedia privacy policy provides:

“Occasionally, however, the Foundation may receive a subpoena or other compulsory request from a law-enforcement agency or a court or equivalent government body that requests the disclosure of information about a registered user, and may be compelled by law to comply with the request.”

Facbook’s policy is similar, requiring a “good faith belief” that disclosure is required.  [The Facebook policy has some other issues, though]. 

Facebook has fought subpoenas like this in the past, and likely will continue to do so.  But therein lies the real issue, even though the law might not require disclosure of the posters identity, at the end of the day, then, it’s up to the site whether or not to disclose the information (Facebook’s “good faith belief” is a fairly easy standard for them to meet). 

In a similar suit, Google recently outted a blogger who called a model a “skank.”   The Google privacy policy similarly provides that they can reveal information if:

“We have a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to (a) satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request”

Now the blogger might be suing Google, though she probably has little chance of winning, given the terms of the privacy policy.  That said, if Facebook or Wikimedia decided to disclose the poster in this case, he too would have little recourse against them.  Agreeing to a privacy policy has consequences.

In short, if Livingston can show defamation, he still has a major privacy hurdle to jump in order to win: convincing Wikimedia and Facebook it would be easier to disclose the blogger than fight the subpoena, an argument that has been unsuccessful with these companies in the past.

The bottom line for bloggers: don’t post false and defamatory statements about people.  Though the law might protect you, you can’t be sure Google, WordPress, Facebook or Twitter will do the same.

On a related note, The Citizen Media Law Project has a great post on whether calling someone gay is even libel.  If this is not libel, then there’s a good chance the case won’t make it to the privacy issues.

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