Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Online Identity Management

Matthew Hennessey reported last November on the case of Megan Meier, a 13-year-old who committed suicide after receiving bullying messages from someone she thought was another teenager named Josh. “Josh” turned out to be Meier’s 47-year-old neighbor, Lori Drew.

Someone later used Drew’s identity to publish a blog entitled “Megan Had It Coming,” purporting to be Drew’s self-defense outlet:

Yes, I made this blog. Yes, I’m Lori Drew… Now that Mr. Banas has made public the announcement that there will be no charges filed against me or my family, I feel it is time to speak out about this tragic affair. I cannot count on any media organization to fairly represent my story, as they have grossly misrepresented and sensationalized the story so far. So, I must present my case here, on the blog that has been my only outlet…
(The original post has been taken down, but is copied in part here.)

The Ethical Blogger experienced something similar when it came to our attention that several comments submitted to our site were posted not only by an individual pretending to be someone else, but with the obvious intent to slander. The comments were often strange and in many cases only tangentially relevant to the topic being discussed. The body of the posts were signed using two names. While the comments struck the blog administrator as unusual, nothing about them was explicitly derogatory or inflammatory.

Only when we received a phone call from the party whose name was signed to the post did we begin investigating. The pen name was linked to a Blogger profile that was in turn linked to two Blogger hosted blogs. A quick analysis of the nature and content of the blogs revealed that both they and the comments posted on our blog were intended to smear the reputation of the party whose name was signed to the post.

A Google search of the names signed to the posts revealed a pattern of comments on other blogs that, in light of the phone complaint, seemed consistent with the poster’s intent to discredit the party whose name was signed to the post.

Using someone’s identity in an attempt to damage the person’s reputation is clearly unethical, but what are the legal implications?

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Legal Guide for Bloggers, the US Supreme Court has ruled that blogs have the same constitutional protections as mainstream media as concerns defamation. And those protections are dependent on the context in which the comment was made:
For a blog, a court would likely start with the general tenor, setting, and format of the blog, as well as the context of the links through which the user accessed the particular entry. Next the court would look at the specific context and content of the blog entry, analyzing the extent of figurative or hyperbolic language used and the reasonable expectations of the blog's audience.
More details are available here.

Google is reported to have handed over the IP address of an anonymous blogger in Israel (after the blogger failed to appear in court) for defamation after comments were posted on Blogger suggesting that members of the Shaarei Tikva Council take bribes and have links to organized crime.

No charges that we know of were pressed against the Ethical Blogger commenter.

Comments not intended to harm can still damage a person’s reputation. Whether or not the law applies, individuals and companies can turn to firms specializing in online identity management.
From ReputationDefender’s website:
First we SEARCH… Next we DESTROY…

Our trained and expert online reputation specialists use an array of techniques developed in-house to correct and/or completely remove the selected unwanted content from the web. This is an important and time-consuming task, but we take the job seriously so you can sleep better at night.

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