Your Anonymity Online Is At Risk

by Staff on July 12, 2011 · 0 comments

in Off-topic

If you post comments online “anonymously”, such as on this web site, the Times-Mail or Herald-Times newspapers, or any other web site, your anonymity may be at risk.

Defamation Lawsuit Filed

Jeffrey Miller was the President and CEO of Junior Achievement of Indiana and President of the Experiential Learning and Entrepreneurship Foundation. A construction project was suspended based on allegations that Miller had misappropriated funds for the project.

Based on these allegations, Miller filed a lawsuit alleging that statements about his role in the formation and construction of the project (a culinary school) were false and defamatory.

Anonymous Comment Posted

The Indianapolis Star published a news story on March 19, 2010, entitled “Junior Achievement Faces Questions, Audit”. Later, a reader anonymously posted a comment about the story on the Indianapolis Star website, stating:

“This is not JA’s responsibility. They need to look at the FORMER president of JA and others on the ELEF board. The ‘missing’ money can be found in their bank accounts.”

Subpoena

On June 24, 2010, Miller served The Star with “non-party discovery” seeking documents identifying the anonymous source of this comment. The anonymous commenter’s response to the news story was not an element of Miller’s defamation lawsuit.

The Star objected to the discovery, relying on the statutory and constitutional protections against compelled disclosure of the anonymous source (the Indiana Constitution provides even greater protections for free speech than does the United States Constitution), and because Miller sought information that was not related to his claims.

Basically, Miller fired off a subpoena to The Star in an attempt to “unmask” the anonymous commenter. The trial court failed to quash Miller’s subpoena and The Star appealed. The newspaper is currently fighting the demand in order to protect the poster’s anonymity.

Amicus Brief Filed

Recently, five news organizations along with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have filed an amicus brief urging an Indiana appeals court to block the subpoena.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a non-profit, member-supported civil liberties organization working to protect individual rights in the digital world. EFF actively encourages and challenges industry, government and the courts to support free expression, privacy and openness in the information society.

(Note: This writer has been a member of the EFF for several years and continues to donate, financially, to the EFF.)

Potential Outcome

If the appeals court does not rule that the trial court erred in refusing to quash the subpoena, The Star will be compelled to identify the individual who anonymously posted the statements on the The Star’s website.

How This Affects You

Many Mitchell News reaeders also read other area online publications, such as the Bedford Times-Mail and Bloomington Herald-Times, both of which allow subscribers to post comments on news stories.

Like the Times-Mail, the Herald-Times, and many other online publications, The Star requires that users “provide information about themselves which The Star does not publish or otherwise disclose” before a reader can provide commentary (Mitchell News does not require this information).

If you subscribe to the Times-Mail or Herald-Times and comment online, you already know that these news organizations are aware of your identity, though they do not publish this information nor do they associate commenter’s pseudonyms with their real names — as far as I am aware.

If The Star is unsuccessful in its fight, however, they would be required to upon receipt of a subpoena. If someone did not like a comment you made, they could potentially subpoena the newspaper to reveal your identity.

Subpoenas and Mitchell News

Like any other entity, Mitchell News could be legally forced to provide any identifying information about an online commenter.

Those of you who are long-time readers will no doubt remember years ago when the comment threads here often deteriorated into name-calling, online fights, and false accusations. There were times when readers threatened to obtain subpoenas to find out a commenter’s true identity. To date, Mitchell News has never received a subpoena seeking information on a commenter’s identity.

How Mitchell News Protects Your Identity

Web servers (computers that web sites run on) normally log information about visitors to web sites. This information is often useful for troubleshooting and for statistical analysis, such as tracking the number of visitors, counting how many times an article was read, etc.

The server that Mitchell News is hosted on is privately owned and managed and does not log information about visitors to the Mitchell News website. Since Mitchell News does not require the real name or other identifying information about commenters, the only way to identify the person who posted a comment would be through their IP address (a unique number assigned to every computer on the Internet).

nginx, the web server used by Mitchell News, has been configured not to log information (including the IP address) of visitors to the Mitchell News site. WordPress, the software platform used to manage the web site does record your IP address when you post comment. An automated process runs on a regular basis, however, that “scrubs” this information from the database.

NOTE: You can read through our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy for more details.

What Would Happen if Mitchell News Received a Subpoena?

Upon receipt of a subpoena seeking information to identify an anonymous commenter, we would be required to review our files to see if we did, indeed, have the requested information. Because that information does not exist, however, we would quickly respond to the subpoena stating that we did not have any of the information requested. Without identifying information, any potential lawsuits would, quite likely, not proceed very far.

That would not be the case on other news sites. They do require and retain your identifying information and would provide that to law enforcement or the courts upon presentation of a subpoena.

Why Do You Have This Policy?

First and foremost, although we are slowly allowing the government to strip us of our rights, I strongly and completely believe in free speech, both online and in “the real world”.

In an article I wrote four and a half years ago entitled “Reader Comments”, I wrote:

“I firmly believe that the only way to get the citizens of Mitchell to say what they *really* think is to allow them to do so in a completely anonymous and confidential manner. If I made people identity themselves, less people would share their true thoughts. The people of Mitchell are scared to speak up because, if they do so, they have to fear reprise and retribution from the police and leaders of this town.”

If you decide to comment on any news stories on this website, you should be completely confident that you do not have to worry about being identified or having your words used against you.

We will continue to follow the case regarding the subpoena to The Star and will report outcomes here.

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