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Defusing those ‘Google bombs’

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Kathleen Parker
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.

The wild frontier we now know and (mostly) love called the Blogosphere is a not-always-OK 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.


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 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 just one example, a wedding photographer lost his business when a single unhappy bride went ’zilla and trashed him online.


“No one is immune,” says Scheff. And just because you’re not personally active on the Internet doesn’t mean that your persona isn’t online—not necessarily in a good way. The Internet has unleashed that part of ourselves that we used to keep under wraps. Dark thoughts, like the trolls of Mordor, can now surface and thrive by the light of day.


The freedom granted by anonymity and a virtual audience may have been a boon to democracy, affording everyone a voice, but it has been a plague on decency. Inhibition, we lament, is an undervalued virtue.


Scheff’s case and the Cohen incident suggest that a new level of accountability, largely missing from personal blogs, may be in the offing.


“What you type today can haunt you tomorrow,” says Scheff. “People need to know that if you use your mouse and keypad to harm others, there is a price tag.”


Harm is the operative word. Although Scheff was able to prove material losses, Cohen likely gained from her brief tenure as a victim. In fact, she has dropped her lawsuit and forgiven the blogger.


No one likes being bashed online or elsewhere—and public people are familiar with the experience. But even Scheff thinks that in the absence of quantifiable defamation, anonymity deserves protection. As Google and the courts slug it out, Cohen did manage to BOLD-italicize an oft-ignored lesson: Think before you type.


Or else, someone might want more than a penny for your thoughts.


Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Her e-mail address is kparker@washpost.com.

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