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Legal Showdowns of the Wild Worldwide Web

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By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When Oscar Wilde observed that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, he could not have imagined the Internet.

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The wild frontier we now know and (mostly) love called the blogosphere is a not-always-okay corral where Free Speech is armed and often dangerous.

The latest showdown is between two women -- a Vogue model and an anonymous blogger -- at odds over what is permissible in the name of free expression. After the blogger called Liskula Cohen a "skank," among other things, the model demanded her identity from the blog host, Google. A New York Supreme Court judge agreed that she was entitled to the information and ordered the company to reveal her name.

Outraged, the blogger, revealed as Rosemary Port, is launching a $15 million lawsuit against Google for disclosing her identity. Google's Andrew Pederson said that while his company sympathizes with victims of cyber-bullying, "We also take great care to respect privacy concerns and will only provide information about a user in response to a subpoena or other court order."

Voila.

This all may seem like an inside-the-runway spat between two women who don't like each other. As pioneering blogger and law professor Glenn Reynolds noted on Instapundit, "I never would have heard the words 'Liskula Cohen' and 'skank' together if it hadn't been for her blogger-outing litigation efforts."

The model case isn't insignificant, however, and raises weighty questions about privacy, anonymity and the future of e-free speech.

The problem of online defamation is hardly new, but several recent lawsuits have begun challenging the anything-goes modus operandi of the Internet. One of the most famous dates to 2006, when Sue Scheff won a staggering $11.3 million verdict against a woman who had posted hundreds of defamatory comments about Scheff and her company, which counsels the parents of troubled teens.

After years of torment that included stalkers and death wishes, Scheff was able to prove that her reputation and business suffered as a result of the defendant's comments. In her new book, "Google Bomb," due for release Sept. 1 and co-authored with attorney John W. Dozier Jr., Scheff tells the story of her lawsuit and offers advice to others similarly defamed online.

"Google bomb" is Internet slang for attempting to raise the ranking of a given page during a Google search. The popularity of a page may not reflect the page's relationship to truth, but it may be popular for other reasons. Let's just say, nasty sells.

Defusing Google bombs isn't much fun unless you're a computer geek or have no preferable ways of spending your time. To keep your online profile positive and prominent, you have to blog, tweet and maintain Web sites -- or hire someone to do it for you. Scheff says she resents having to do these things, but, "if you don't own your own name, someone else will."

Scheff considers herself lucky because she was able to hire an attorney as well as an Internet monitoring company, ReputationDefender, that manages her online persona. Others, hundreds of whom write her each week, aren't so fortunate. In one example, a wedding photographer lost his business when a single unhappy bride went 'zilla and trashed him online.


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