Worlds Colliding

Once in a great while, my different blogging and professional lives collide. PittGirl, er, Virginia Montanez (of all people!), is the hook for a little collision today.

As everyone on Planet Pittsburgh now knows, on Wednesday PittGirl identified herself as Virginia Montanez. And then she was fired from her job. This came as a surprise to no one, though it disappointed many. Somewhat impertinently and in a transparent attempt to increase Pittsblog traffic, I challenged VM to raise her blogging game, since she now has something to play (write) for. To which she responded (if you follow her on Twitter): no pressure there!

That's side one. Here's side two:

Today at CNN.com, VM's experience is the hook for a little update on blogging and anonymity online. Can and should the two co-exist? (As a mandatory G-20 aside, somewhere in the corridors of power in Allegheny County, someone is cringing: millions of eyeballs directed at Pittsburgh's alleged renaissance over the next month, and CNN is writing about formerly anonymous bloggers?) And the commentariat at CNN consists of my Internet policy-and-law colleagues Judith Donath (at MIT and Harvard's Berkman Center) and Dan Solove (a law professor at George Washington University).

Can and should anonymity and blogging co-exist? There really isn't a story there. Anonymity coexists with blogging until it doesn't or shouldn't, and both culturally and legally, the burden of showing that it shouldn't usually falls on those who would expose the anonymous author. Once in a great while a meteoric example comes along and shows how this works.

If an anonymous blogger comes out voluntarily, as VM did (more or less, according to her own story; she wasn't coerced by a court but felt pressure from others who might have outed her involuntarily), then the event is food for CNN, Twitterers, and chat rooms. People worry about First Amendment values, the tradition begun with Publius and others, and what Ben Franklin would have thought about anonymity as a cover for snark. In the end, most of the time, people slow down to see the aftermath of the accident, and there's less to see than we hope for.

If an anonymous blogger resists and, more important, if the blogger's host or ISP refuses to give up the name, then the courts get involved. The usual pattern is: Anonymous blogger or poster defames someone. The victim sues the anonymous writer and the ISP, and demands that the ISP give up the blogger's true identity.

While there is no legal clear rule on what happens (should the court order the ISP to give up the name?), here there is a story. The other day the federal circuit court for the District of Columbia (the "DC Circuit" to lawyers and judges), one of the most influential in the country, endorsed a complicated, multi-factor standard that courts should use in these cases. Basically, the victim can't get the defendant's name just by filing a lawsuit; the victim also has to have a substantial amount of evidence that the victim is likely to win the case. The approach is similar to the test that some other courts have used. The name of the case is Solers v. Doe, and you can find the whole thing here.

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About Pittsblog

Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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