Is Likula Cohen a "ho"? She says not, and is angry enough to sue Google to learn the identity of an anonymous blogger who referred to her as a "ho," "skank" and "psychotic." But, truth be told, Ms. Cohen, 37, is a super-model, a former cover girl for such magazines as Vogue. Odds are she's little more than eye candy with a pulse. Does anyone really care about her reputation?
A New York trial judge yesterday ordered that Google turn over any information it had regarding the blogger's identity. The firm has complied, and has turned over the poster's IP address and e-mail address. Apparently the blog was pulled from the Internet shortly after Ms. Cohen sued. Be careful Ms. Cohen, one defense at the blogger's disposal is truth; now the world will know whether these names are apt.
While I could care a whit for the reputation of a woman who, if not a whore, tip-toes on the border of prurience for big bucks, her case is important. (I confess to prudery. There was a time when the lingerie ads in The New York Times shocked me for their suggestiveness. I've since been battered down by a culture obsessed with sexually suggestive images.)
I've never understood why a blogger does not reveal his or her identity. It strikes me as something akin to a publicity stunt. From time to time, the game approaches interest: A person with an institutional connection requiring discretion might decide to play Internet Deep Throat by posting. But it remains ethically suspect in my view for a person to opine anonymously. If you say it, own it.
Requiring Google to turn over identifying information makes sense as a matter of law and fact. It does not represent an assault on free speech, and it forestalls, rather that hastens, regulation of the Internet.
All Google requires to establish a blog is an e-mail address. A user need not give a real name. In other words, Google runs the risk of liability for agreeing to host a forum on which just about anything goes. It is good business, and good for the First Amendment, too. If Google were permitted to avoid lawful process and flout discovery, then pressure would build to create regulations effectively creating something like a license for Internet users. I would be troubled by a regime in which writers were required to register before they speak.
I am aware of the long and honorable tradition of using pseudonyms. The Federalist Papers, the Anti-Federalist Papers, opinion pieces in the colonial press, all were written by first-rate intellects using pseudonyms. Even John Marhsall, while sitting as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, wrote pseudonymous pieces for the press. But in each of these cases, the material was published under the imprimatur of a news organization with editors. In other words, someone was accountable for the speech, even if it was not the author himself.
The glory of the Internet is that it is instantaneous. No editor will approve or disapprove of this piece before it appears. (Though that is often much the loss for most of us. I shudder to think of how many non-fluencies, grammatical errors and typographical errors soils these posts. ) The Internet promotes robust speech on all manner of topics by permitting Everyman to publish his or her own thoughts in a forum equal to that of the most powerful institutions.
But the blogosphere is not, and should not be, entirely self-regulating. There is a lot of silliness going on in cyberspace. Bloggers solicit links, the better to build traffic and attract attention. Almost inevitably, rating services have emerged. Otherwise good bloggers somehow see the need to abase themselves by fawning over the pages of others. Scott, at Simple Justice, for example, glow's about some pages that, when examined, have the appeal of bad Chinese food. I'd enjoy Scott's page more if he'd simply opine, and stop looking out the rear-view mirror.
I would rather have litigation regulate the Internet and blogosphere than bureacrats. If Ms. Cohen's feelings are hurt, let her sue. And let the person who opined about her defend. Of course, this means that folks in the blogosphere might feel a chill. We ought to. The Internet doesn't yield a pass from defamation laws.
Cyberbullying, as the practice of anonymously slurring folks is sometimes called, doesn't deserve privileged status. And neither do folks who find false courage in anonymity. If you say it, own it. That's a decent motto. Of course, it really is just another way reminding writers that integrity matters.